‘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?”


100 Houses, Many Stories For Veteran Habitat Volunteer

Waco electrician using skills to give others ‘a better life’

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

June 18, 2007

The smell of sawdust fills Cliff Johnson’s nose, hammers pound loudly above his head, and the heat of an upcoming late spring day causes droplets of sweat to shine on his face. But the 85-year-old Wacoan does not pause to wipe the sweat away as he stares intently at the electrical wires he holds in his solid yet gentle hands.

After wiring 100 houses in more than 20 years with Waco Habitat for Humanity, working these building sites is second nature for Johnson, who has no intention of slowing down.

“I set my goal to do 100, but if I can do more, I will,” he said. “I meet a goal and then set a new one. I have a knee replacement in July, but I hope to come back and do more.”

Habitat for Humanity is an international nonprofit Christian housing ministry that builds homes for low-income families, said John Alexander, executive director of Waco Habitat for Humanity. Johnson started working on his first house for Habitat for Humanity in 1986 after he retired from his job as an electrician.

“No, I didn’t retire, I just quit working for money,” Johnson said. “A lot of people sit down on the couch and just watch TV. I’m out here at 7:30 a.m. They call me a slave driver, but I came here to work.”

Growing up in Hamilton County on the Leon River, Johnson said that his family “didn’t have a lot.”

“We fished in that river and that was our bathtub, but we had to walk seven or eight miles to get there,” he said. “That’s why I’m happy the Lord can use me. I’m just a run-of-the-mill guy.”

In 1960, Johnson moved to Waco and began working for Womack Electric, where he learned the trade from the late James Gronski. He heard about Habitat for Humanity in 1986 when the organization started in Waco and its regional director, Joe Gatlin, spoke at Calvary Baptist Church, which Johnson attended at the time.

“I prayed about it that night, and the next day I asked Joe if I could work on the second house,” Johnson said. “I didn’t ask about the first one because I figured they already had someone, but he asked me, ‘Why not work with us on the first house?’ Turns out they didn’t have anybody on that first house after all.”

Johnson wired that first house for electricity, and it was dedicated in July 1987.

“We used to build a house in a week and have the air conditioner running by 4:30 p.m. Friday,” he said. “But things have changed, designs have changed, and now it’s hard to build one in a week.”

Johnson continued to wire about 25 more houses by himself. Then he had help from other volunteer electricians.

“Earl Perryman worked on 25 to 30 houses with me,” Johnson said. “I also did 25 to 30 houses with Sam Braun. I want to thank everyone I’ve worked with for helping, but those two in particular I’d like to thank.”

While the work was hard, Johnson said he continued with Habitat for Humanity because he “liked giving someone a better life.” He also has done electrical work for Gospel Café, World Hunger Relief International, Community Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church.

Johnson took a break from his volunteer work when President Bush visited a Waco Habitat for Humanity build site in 2001.

“I got a picture with the president and had him sign it for my two grandsons,” he said. “Then I went over to his wife and asked her to sign it. But she said she’d go ahead and sign it for both of them because you could read her writing but you can’t read his.”

Johnson, who lives in Hewitt with his wife, Wilma, said his four grandsons have helped him build houses.

“My son, Jim Johnson, has helped on this [100th] house and started helping me with them 15 to 20 years ago,” Johnson said. “But it’s just not my wife’s cup of tea – she’s a city girl.”

The house that Johnson currently is wiring is the 106th house for Waco Habitat for Humanity. Johnson said he has not worked on all of them because contractors were hired for some houses.

Construction at the house, at 1801 Seneca Ave., began June 8 and will continue through Saturday, said Emily Fau, development director for Waco Habitat for Humanity. A dedication ceremony with the home’s future owners should take place in July.

“Local businesses pitched in for this house,” Fau said. “The Waco Association of Realtors gave a lead gift of $5,000. Studio Gallery had an art show and raised $15,000.”

Last year, Johnson received a Jefferson Award in recognition of his service as an “unsung hero” at a ceremony in the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station. This national award system honors community and public service in the United States.

“That Jefferson Award really shook me up a bit,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like you should be recognized for service to the Lord. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the Lord. People don’t really like that word, servant, but that’s what I am.”

Despite the recognition, Johnson said he would rather not be in the spotlight.

“The only reason I’m doing this story is so somebody might read it and be encouraged to do something,” Johnson said. “Somebody might read this and think, ‘Well, if he can do 100 houses, I can do 107.’ ”