‘Fill-In Moms’ Lend Voices to Forgotten Kids

Volunteers guide abused, neglected children through the legal sytem

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

Aug. 27, 2007

 When Rowena Macias’ sister went into labor, her mother could not come. So instead, her “fill-in mom,” Delena “DeeDee” Hoffman drove from Waco to Hillsboro, picked up Macias and continued to Temple to be with Macias’ sister during the birth.

“And we were there in the same room when she was having her baby,” Macias said. “She’s like family. She’s just great.”

Hoffman, a supervisor for Court Appointed Special Advocates of McLennan and Hill Counties, was assigned to Macias when she was removed from her home at the age of 15. The national CASA program consists of court-appointed volunteers who voice the best interests of abused and neglected children in court. CASA of McLennan and Hill Counties has 70 volunteers, 43 of whom are currently assigned to a case. Last year, these volunteers served 253 children in the two counties out of 600 total children in foster care.

“You meet a child, and you read their history at CPS (Child Protective Services), and these children have seen so much,” said Susan Burt, the local CASA program director. “You look in their eyes and they look like they’re 50 because of what they’ve seen. And to see that dead look in a child’s eyes turn into someone filled with joy  . . . it’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.”

Looking out for children

A CASA volunteer plays many roles. They make sure a child is receiving the medical or psychological treatment they need, monitor the guardian’s care of the child, make recommendations to the court in the child’s best interests and often just hang out with a child. Volunteers spend a minimum of eight to 10 hours a month with their child, whether it be helping with homework, driving them to a parent for a visit or going out to dinner.

“I average over 40 [hours] a month, sometimes 70, especially if I’m doing all that driving,” said Dian Turner, who has volunteered with CASA for two years. “It just depends on the child, the complexity of the case, what kind of foster home they’re in. If it’s a good foster family then they’ll take the kid to functions. But it they’re overwhelmed then that kid is probably getting lost in the shuffle. We’re doing back-to-school shopping right now, but it just depends on the age of the child.”

Since CASA volunteers are appointed members of the court, they have access to a child’s medical records and their CPS history. Volunteers stay with a case, which consists of an individual child or a sibling group, until they find a permanent placement or until they reach the age of 18 and are no longer legally require an advocate.

“The child’s not old enough to say what care they’re getting,” Turner said. “Once the parent’s rights have been terminated, we start trying to find a relative that would take this child instead of just throwing them out on the adoption market, which is hard if it’s an older child. You have to research family members, do a home study, try to get that child placed.”

Children who are removed from their homes are often placed in a temporary foster home or a residential treatment center, sometimes hours away from where their case began. They can end up in permanent homes if a relative takes the child or through adoption, for instance.

“We’ve got one child right now who’s in CPS custody and the parental rights were terminated a long time ago,” Burt said. “But a little while ago he started talking about an aunt up in Cleveland and he said, ‘Will you call her? Will you try to find my aunt?’ And DeeDee did, she spent a whole day calling apartment complexes looking for Aunt Grace. And she was crying when she said ‘they found his aunt.’ The placement where he lives drove him up there and she wants him. If DeeDee hadn’t been the one stirring that pot then it wouldn’t have happened.”

Court welcomes effort

Based on the volunteer’s interaction with the child, a court report from CASA will be filed with the judge hearing that child’s case. Judge Alan Mayfield of the 74th State District Court hears most of the juvenile cases in Waco.

“If I had enough CASA volunteers to assign to every [child], that would be a great help,” Mayfield said. “CASA volunteers are charged with the responsibility of being a child’s voice in court. They are also adults with a good deal of life experience, so they can add some maturity to that child’s report. CASA provides a great service. We’re fortunate to have them. They’re excellent people, but we can always use more.”

The report includes all the children involved in the case, a synopsis of why they are in CPS custody, a list of every contact the volunteer has had with the child, a description of each child and a recommendation to the court.

“That could be something like we recommend that child remains in their current placement, we make recommendations about if we think the child is on too many psychotropic medications or if the child is not getting therapy and we think the child needs therapy,” Burt said.

Burt said that the best part of a volunteer’s work is just spending time with a child.

“We had a girl who came in just before her sixth birthday, and she had to be taught to blow out the candles because she’d never had a birthday cake before,” Burt said. “It’s just such simple things that we can do for these children that they’ve never had before. It can be hard at the end of a case to tell a child goodbye. But you know you’re letting them go spread their little wings so they can be happy.”

Prospective volunteers, who must be at least 21 years old, must fill out an application and have a pre-training interview with a CASA staff member. Burt said volunteers often have full-time jobs and that married couples also make great volunteer teams. After the interview, potential volunteers go through a 30-hour training program, but Burt said that is a small amount of time compared to the difference volunteers make in children’s lives.

“I was talking the young woman I’m with and I asked, ‘Once you’ve had your 18th birthday next month and you’re no longer in the system, if I go to talk to a group or something, would you be willing to come with me and share your story?’ ” Burt said. “And she looked at me and she said ‘Yeah, because everyone should know what you’ve meant to me.’ And that’s not just about me, that’s every volunteer.”

The next volunteer training session starts Sept. 8. Call Burt at 752-9330, Ext. 117, for more information.

“I realize that everyone’s busy, and a lot of people honestly don’t want to think they live in a community were children are being burned, where children are having their legs broken, where children are forced to have sex with Mom’s boyfriend,” Burt said. “But the fact is, they are everybody’s kids. How can anybody know what’s happening to these children and not have eight to 10 hours a month to make a difference?”


A Doggy Departure

 County canine retiring after 4 1/2 years of sniffing out drugs

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

Aug. 25, 2007

CLICK HERE to see a PDF of this story with pictures of Shadow

 Shadow always looks like he’s smiling. But don’t be fooled – behind the floppy ears and twinkling brown eyes, Shadow is all business.

As the McLennan County Sheriff Office’s drug dog, Shadow has spent the past 41⁄2 years sniffing for illegal drugs and chasing bad guys at the side of investigator and K-9 handler Michael Gates. But because of a medical condition, the 9-year-old black Labrador retriever will retire Sept. 30.

“He’s a working dog,” Gates said. “He’s not real affectionate towards a lot of other people. Where you see Shadow’s personality come out is when he’s working. He’s strictly business. Every now and then he wants to be petted, but most of the time he wants to play.”

During his time working with Gates, Shadow has found 163 pounds of marijuana, 338 grams of methamphetamine, 595.9 grams of cocaine and $301,427 in cash. He’s also assisted in the arrests of about 120 defendants, Chief Deputy Randy Plemons said. Shadow has sniffed out drugs at traffic stops, searches at local schools and drug raids, and has worked with several agencies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety and area police departments.

“The county definitely got their money’s worth with Shadow,” Plemons said. “He’s done a tremendous job for us.”

Shadow’s skills were put to the test in April, when he and Gates competed at the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association’s National Championship in Fayetteville, Ark. Shadow placed seventh out of 125 competing teams.

“We had no idea that would be the last hoorah,” said Shadow’s trainer, Nancy Bidwell of Abbott, who owns Scentry Place, which trains bomb and drug dogs and certifies their handlers. “We knew right away that Shadow was a winner. You don’t go and win seventh place at nationals if you haven’t been working your dog.”

Scentry Place takes dogs from local animal shelters, mostly retrievers, and trains them for six to eight weeks or longer, depending on the dog. Then the dog is paired with a handler and the two go through a certification test. The sheriff’s office originally bought Shadow six years ago, and he worked with another handler for almost two years until he was paired with Gates.

For the drug-detection certification, Shadow and Gates had to find hidden drugs in three minutes or less. The team is certified in finding marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Gates also works with Shadow doing reinforcement training eight to 10 hours a week.

“Every time he’s doing his job he’s playing, he’s having fun, he loved it,” Gates said. “It’s just something in that part of the training. When you’re training the dog, and the dog locates a hide or a find, you’re jumping up and down, yelling and screaming and telling him good job and playing with him, and the reward is some type of toy that the dog likes. You really get their drive up when they find it, so that’s what they’re working for.”

Shadow’s veterinarian recommended that he retire next month. The arthritis in Shadow’s spine has made jumping and other aspects of the job difficult for the 107-pound dog.

“It’ll be a huge difference for Shadow,” Gates said. “To help him out, he’s on a pain medication right now and it won’t be as severe if he’s at home, not jumping and doing his normal duties that he has to do. He’s going to be more comfortable at home.”

The commissioners court will vote at the Tuesday meeting on the recommendation that Shadow retires to live with Gates. Plemons said money for a replacement drug dog, which can cost $4,500 to $8,000, has been included in the 2008 budget. It is not clear yet whether Gates will be the handler of the new dog.

“That’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime dog right there,” Bidwell said. “I know he’s going to have a wonderful retirement life with Michael. I just wish every one could end up like that.”

Officers Honored For Saving Boy’s Life

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

July 27, 2007

When Willie Culberson hugged Waco police officers Joe Ozuna and Jeremy Pina at the Waco Police Department on Thursday, her eyes were misty as she quietly said “Thank you.” The gentle smile on her face showed that the tears in her eyes were from joy.

Ozuna and Pina were given lifesaving awards Thursday in the office of Police Chief Alberto Melis for rescuing Culberson’s 14-year-old grandson.

“Very few things are so worthwhile as this,” Melis said. “We all say that we want to become police officers to help people, but you will always remember this. You can be jumping from building to building and chasing bad guys every day, but this is more worthwhile. It certainly stands out.”

A civilian, Jesseana Rice, also earned a lifesaving award for the rescue, although she was not present to accept it.

“It was through their efforts that (the teen) was able to be saved and is doing very well,” said Sgt. Mark Mitzel, who presented the award. He added, “We are very proud of their accomplishments.”

On June 12, Culberson’s grandson asked to go swimming with some friends. Culberson lives in the Waco area, and at the time, her grandson and his mother were living with her.

“I told him not to go, but he snuck out with some friends,” Culberson said. “A friend of theirs at the apartment complex beeped them in. I guess I wasn’t being a very good grandma.”

At the University Club Apartments on North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the young man was swimming in the apartment pool when he began to drown.

Pina was patrolling nearby and arrived on the scene only a minute after he heard the call.

“You try to hurry up a bit more with children,” Pina said. “There’s more anxiety. And of course, we both have children so we know that’s somebody’s child that needs help.”

A grim outlook

When he arrived, the young man was not breathing and he did not have a pulse. Pina began giving CPR.

“It’s just automatic,” Pina said. “They had just pulled him out of the water, so I immediately went to checking his breathing and he didn’t have a pulse or anything.”

Ozuna arrived shortly after Pina and continued CPR on the young man.

“I remember thinking, ‘where’s the paramedic?’ because it seemed like it was taking forever, but it wasn’t, because Ozuna said he was coming and the paramedics were right behind him,” Pina said. “He was just a few seconds away. But it felt like forever that I was trying to get his heart and breathing restored. I remember how exhausted I felt just from that short time.”

Rice, who was at the pool during the incident, stepped in to help the officers revive the unconscious boy with CPR.

“I wish Ms. Rice could have been here,” Ozuna said. “This lady took it upon herself to jump in and help him. There were about seven or eight adults out there just watching while this kid was still in the water. She didn’t ask ‘Am I going to get in trouble? Am I going to get sued?’ She just jumped right in and said ‘I’m CPR-certified, what can I do?’ And that says a lot about her.”

Back to normal life

The young man spent several days recovering in the hospital and now is living with his mother in Atlanta.

“In fact, when we called to check on him a few days ago, his grandfather said he was out playing baseball,” Melis said. “We hope that because of what these officers did he can go on to contribute great things to our society.”

Both officers humbly accepted their awards and said it was just a part of the job.

“We didn’t do anything any other officer would not have done,” Pina said. “I don’t look it as yeah, we saved somebody’s life. It’s just all in a day’s work.”

Police Arrest Man Charged in Burnings


By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

July 21, 2007


When 23-year-old Ishmael Lopez was arrested early Friday morning, it wasn’t the first time he felt the cold metal grip of handcuffs around his wrists.

The man accused by Waco police of setting his mother, aunt and a third woman on fire this week had been convicted previously on a variety of charges, including drug possession, theft and driving while intoxicated, and he had his probation revoked.

Even so, Rhett Domangue, Lopez’s boss and owner of RMD Contracting, described him as a “good guy.”

“He was always cordial on the job and he was very easy to get along with,” Domangue said. “He didn’t cause any trouble. I’ve never had any complaints out of him.”

Police say Lopez poured gasoline on his mother, Adela Lopez, 52; his aunt, Diann Gonzales, 44; and a third woman, Lydia Herrera, 43; then lit them on fire around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday after an argument at Adela Lopez’s home in the 3600 block of Grim Avenue in North Waco.

On Friday evening, Waco police charged Lopez with two counts of attempted murder, intending death, in connection with the assaults on the women, a McLennan County Jail spokeswoman said.

Adela Lopez is in serious condition and Gonzales is in critical condition at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where the three women were transferred from Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.

No information is available on Herrera’s condition.

“It’s really out of character for him, in my opinion,” Domangue said. “It surprised me that what happened happened, it really did. He was always very kind. He just didn’t seem like that kind of person.”

Negotiated surrender

Authorities had been negotiating with Ishmael Lopez by cell phone from Wednesday morning until he turned himself in at the city fire marshal’s office shortly after midnight Thursday, Fire Marshal Jerry Hawk said.

Ishmael Lopez then was taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in an ambulance and treated for burns, Hawk said. Afterward, Lopez was moved to the jail and charged with arson, a first-degree felony, and aggravated assault, a charge unrelated to the fire.

Efforts by the Tribune-Heraldto contact Lopez’s family were unsuccessful Friday. A woman answering a phone at the home of Ishmael Lopez’s brother said he was out of town.

When he was 14, Ishmael Lopez went into the custody of the Texas Youth Commission for an unknown offense. His next brush with the law came Dec. 13, 2002, when he was arrested for possession of two ounces or less of marijuana in Beverly Hills, according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to the Class B misdemeanor and received a parole sentence and fine. His probation was revoked, however, after he failed to show up for orientation processing or pay the court and probation fees, according to court documents. He was then sentenced to 10 days in jail.

On Aug. 10, 2006, Ishmael Lopez pleaded guilty to theft of a television worth between $50 and $500 dollars, driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. For all three charges, he was sentenced to 45 days in jail. He was allowed to complete his time on work release, so he worked during the day as a laborer at RMD Contracting and spent his nights in jail.

Lopez was arrested again on a charge of possession of marijuana on Jan. 12, 2007, in Woodway, and pleaded guilty in March, according to court documents. He was sentenced to 100 days in jail and was granted work release with the same employer. Also in March, police arrested Lopez for theft of $50 to $500. A court date on that charge has not been set.

Lopez was being held at McLennan County Jail in lieu of a $150,000 bond for the assault and arson charges Friday night, a jail spokeswoman said. He is awaiting arraignment on the charges of attempted murder, she said.