Volunteer Your Voice

How a busy R.N., mother and wife gave a foster child the one thing she wanted most

By: Kathryn Hyatt

Nine-year-old Brittany confidently walked up to the stand, her eyes sharp and determined. Her pigtails swayed side-to-side with each step as she climbed the steps to the witness stand. Her aunt’s words echoed in her head: “All you have to do is tell the truth – nothing more, nothing less.” She faced the attorney as he cleared his throat. “Miss Brittany, can you please identify the person who murdered your brother?”

Brittany walked the court through the events of that night: the screams she heard from the sidewalk, the bruises that covered his body from last time, how he was thrown across rooms. She described his heaviness when he could no longer sit up, the “stuff” coming out of his mouth and the overwhelming panic when 911 couldn’t save him. The horrific memory etched in her mind plays again and again. She remembers it all.

Court-appointed special advocate, Chrisy, had been waiting over a year for this day. She knew the outcome of this trial would impact the parental rights over Brittany and her younger brother, to whom she had been appointed two-and-a-half years earlier. During this time, Chrisy had followed the children through four different placements. Chrisy constantly tried to understand what the most important thing was to them.

Feeling caught in the middle, the children found the constant changes confusing. While Brittany was devastated by the death of her brother, it was clear she still loved her parents and wanted to be with them. She often lied to ensure a good impression of different family members. As the one consistent presence in their lives, Chrisy was “constantly reminding her that it’s OK to love and miss her mom – that no feeling is wrong. She’s a little girl trying to figure out all this chaos she shouldn’t have had to go through.”

Even at such a young age, Brittany started worrying she would grow up to be like her mother. Chrisy assured her that she wasn’t predestined to grow up to be like someone just because they’re related. “You get to choose who you want to be.” Brittany’s youngest brother’s objective was simple: As long as he was with his sister, he was OK. Chrisy remembers “waiting it out with him” during angry outbursts, encouraging the boy she would not give up on him.

Chrisy believes being an R.N. gives her practical experience on how to communicate with multiple differing parties – a much-needed skill in working her case. It taught her “how to speak with people at their level with awareness of cultural beliefs, and to understand a poor decision can be due to lack of education, mental illness, medications, etc.”

Chrisy admits her most useful tool in navigating this case was a simple one. “We had a family tree that I carried around and provided a copy to the judge.” With a large family, Chrisy spent most of her case time “trying to untangle accusations” between family members. “Everybody knew what happened. In other cases, they question if the abuse really happened. Not this one. You had a child who was alive, now they’re not. No one could deny that.” Amidst it all, Chrisy’s goal remained to ensure the children were in a “safe place that would provide for them the rest of their lives.”

Chrisy knows the most valuable thing she advocated for was the children’s name change. Even after she advocated for Brittany to be permanently placed with her aunt, Brittany still longed to feel part of the family. “For her name to match her cousins’ meant she was one of them. When the judge granted our request, it was everything to this little girl.”

Chrisy’s CASA casework supervisor had plenty to say about her advocacy. “She is a very busy wife and mother with an extremely demanding job – yet she manages to give the children and families on her CASA cases more of her time, attention and heart than I would have ever thought possible.”

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children is a network of 949 community-based programs that recruit, train and support citizen-volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities. For more information about CASA, or if you are interested in becoming a CASA, please visit www.coastalbendcasa.org or call 361-884-2272.

Photos courtesy of CASA