As she waited for her nursing shift to begin, Sharon Aikman scanned her local Indiana newspaper and felt a pang of sadness as she read the headline, "Three children abused by mother and boyfriend."
When she read the name of the mother, Aikman's heart stopped. The accused was also the biological mother of Aikman's adopted son Noah.
"My first thought was, 'Had I not adopted my son, this is what would have happened (to him),' " Aikman said. Her next thought was, "Those are Noah's sisters."
Looking back, Aikman, 49, a registered nurse, and her husband, Chuck Aikman, 52, saw this moment as the beginning of a long journey of adoption, foster parenting and, for Sharon, volunteering as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate to help children in situations of abuse or neglect.
CASA volunteers are part of a more than 70,000-strong membership trained to represent and advocate for children who experience abuse or neglect. In 2013 alone, CASA volunteers served more than 238,500 children nationally, donating a total of 5.8 million hours helping kids in need, as reported by the National CASA Association.
Local judicial systems throughout the country report a need for more CASA volunteers, who handled up to 36 percent of local child abuse and neglect cases in 2005, according to a Judicial Survey by Organizational Research Services. Most CASA programs allow only 1 to 2 cases per volunteer at one time.
Leslie Dunn, state director of Guardians ad Litem/CASA in Indiana, said one of the ongoing challenges of local CASA programs is recruiting more CASAs, a challenge the statewide organization is planning to meet head on.
"We want to serve all the kids. We want every child to have a CASA. That’s extremely important," Dunn said. "I don’t want to think about any child not having a voice in court."
What CASAs do
CASA volunteers begin working with children and families after local law enforcement or child welfare workers intervene in cases of abuse or neglect. Once the courts are aware of a situation where a child is not being cared for properly or is experiencing physical or verbal abuse, the judge may decide to assign a CASA volunteer as a special advocate for the child.
"The CASA volunteer's job is to find out how the child is doing and see what their needs are and to make sure they're safe," Dunn said.
The volunteer may discover, for example, that the child isn't doing well at school, Dunn said. They would then talk to the child's teacher and ask for special testing or tutoring. Or, if the child is dealing with issues of domestic violence or drug abuse, the volunteer's main job may be to make sure the home is safe and secure for the child, Dunn said.
"CASA volunteers give deeply of themselves; they give their valuable time and energy to show kindness and compassion to abused and neglected children and to advocate on their behalf," Dunn said. "They make a significant, life-altering difference in the lives of children who are in desperate need of attention and of a good role model."
In order to qualify as an advocate, would-be CASA volunteers undergo an average of 30 hours of training, depending on the state requirements. In Indiana, where Dunn and Aikman both reside, CASA volunteers train using the National CASA Association curriculum, which covers much of what volunteers will likely face, including poverty, working with families, child abuse and neglect, judicial procedures, record keeping and reporting, Dunn said.
For Aikman, when she learned about what CASA volunteers did and how they are a voice and advocate for children, she was convinced and inspired to sign up. "This is really an important player in the lives of these children," Aikman said. "I have to do that."
Home is best
After training, Aikman's first case was what she termed "open and shut." She was assigned to two children whose mother left them alone and went out drinking. The young mother realized quickly that she made a big mistake and complied with everything Aikman, child services and the courts had to say, allowing the case to be dropped and the children to remain with their mother.
Aikman's next case was more complicated. She was assigned a family of five children, ages 20 months to 17 years. Aikman recalled that this was the third time they had been removed from their home due to drugs.
After getting to know the kids for several months, Aikman and the courts decided to send the 17-year-old back home with his parents, despite the previous drug abuse problems. "It wasn't ideal," Aikman said, "but if we left him in a foster home, he would have ended up in jail."
One of the girls in the family, who had specific medical needs, bonded with a family she stayed with, and ended up living with that family permanently. The other three children stayed together in a foster home.
"It was very complicated and very complex, and took many, many, many hours of deliberating," Aikman said. "Do you separate five kids? How do you decide that?"
After all the hours visiting with the kids and getting to know them, Aikman found that separating these kids was actually the best thing for them.
But it didn't come easily, given that CASAs are trained to lean toward the home as the best place for a child's well-being.
"That’s where children want to be and that’s the best place." Dunn said. "But if, after a period of time, the parents haven’t done what they need to do and the children are not able to go home, the CASA's job is to find another permanent place for the child, hopefully with a relative. Other options are guardianship, adoption and foster care. The goal is to get a permanent life plan for that child."
As CASAs get to know their assigned children and learn how best to help them, they occasionally decide on a course of action that differs from the local government child welfare workers. As Dunn put it, the difference is a matter of perspective.
"(Department of Child Services is) bound by law and by policy and they are bound by what their supervisors say. … We stand up for what’s in the best interest of the child, whether or not that follows their policy," she said.
Gil Smith, Northern Indiana Executive Manager of DCS, said that when DCS representatives disagree with the case assessments of a CASA, it's actually a good thing.
"The fact that we differ at times is actually a strength. We see a case through a different lens than a CASA volunteer, but having more eyes on a case gives it more perspectives and overall it builds a stronger case," he said. "And CASAs bring a good balance to the policy directives that we have."
Smith said that despite occasional differences, there is still a lot of mutual respect on both sides.
In fact, in Indiana DCS representatives conduct a portion of CASA training, and they often get together with CASA supervisors in joint trainings, Smith said.
"(The system) is far from perfect," he said," but it works pretty well for the kids."
Impact of a CASA
When DCS and CASA volunteers work together to help a child out of abusive situations, they can have short-term as well as far-reaching benefits toward a child's mental, emotional and even physical health.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — published in 1998 and still a leading source on the effects of trauma on a child — the more adverse experiences a child has, the more likely a child will one day be an alcoholic, experience drug abuse, attempt suicide, have failed relationships or contract chronic diseases. Situations contributing to childhood trauma include physical abuse, neglect or household dysfunction due to a divorce, drug abuse, incarceration or mental illness.
The problem for many of the children that CASA volunteers work with is that several of them experience more than one adverse childhood experience. According to Douglas Goldsmith, director of The Children's Center at the University of Utah, having so many traumatic events early in a child's life leads to a psychologically and even physically damaging level of stress.
"Children experiencing toxic levels of stress (meaning chronic stress) have hormones that enter their body and make these kids undergo what you learn about in school: fight or flight," Goldsmith said. "Adrenaline kicks in and says, 'OK, let’s focus and get prepared to save our life.'
"The problem for kids who are being chronically abused is that those chemicals don’t shut off, so their bodies are under constant stress. This is why they get into peer conflicts and have trouble at home. It’s because of the constant stress."
And the consequences of failing to treat these children for trauma are as far-reaching as the ACE study suggests.
"We know that by not treating childhood trauma, we’re putting children on a horrible trajectory in adulthood with very severe psychological and medical problems," Goldsmith said.
CASA volunteers, as well as others on the outside of an abusive relationship, have a unique opportunity in the lives of these affected children.
"Having an adult in a kid’s life who is kind and who can start to challenge the view of 'adults aren’t helpful,' helps that child know that there is an adult who is there for them and cares about them," Goldsmith said. "It allows some of the kids to say, “maybe things aren’t as bad as I thought.’”
Back in Indiana, Aikman's desire to help children affects every facet of her life. She and her husband manage a nonprofit they co-founded called "Backpack Blessings," which works to gather backpacks full of food for underprivileged kids. For a person like Aikman, the knowledge of a CASA's impact on trauma-affected children leaves her with no choice but to volunteer.
"For me, this is something I’m aware of, and because I am aware of it, I have to do something about it," she said. "I cannot not give back.”