‘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?”


Broken Silence

By Pamela Bond

North Texas Daily

April 28, 2006

The three young women who embraced each other on the rooftop of Cool Beans on Wednesday night seemed like normal girls. They smiled and giggled as they spoke to each other. It’s hard to imagine that just an hour before, their pain-stricken faces appeared on a movie screen as they described the sexual abuses they encountered as children in the documentary “Broken Silence.”

Grapevine senior and director David Alvarado and a team of volunteers from Texas Filmmakers created the movie to share the stories of survivors in their own voices.

Sugarland senior Tara Lynn Smith will never forget the feel of her stepfather’s hands the night he tried to molest her. She will never forget her older sister’s tears the night Tara confessed the incident, only to find the same man had been abusing her oldest sister for six years. She will never forget the day the court punished him for his abuses – 10 years probation and not one night in jail.

In the documentary, which premiered Wednesday night at the Movie Tavern, Tara dropped a clay pot to symbolize the effect the abuse had on her family. The shattered pieces lay at her feet as she tried to explain what it was like to move on.

Florence senior Rebecca Stafford sat on a rock on a green rolling hill, hugging her knees to her chest. She looked into the camera as she explained that even though speaking out against her grandfather’s abuse of her divided the family, it had been worth it. She said she wished parents had been more aware of the symptoms of child abuse.

Sixteen-year-old Joanna Ludlow seems to have confidence and a poise beyond her years. But as she recalls the memory of being raped by a “family friend” in the upstairs bedroom, fainting and then awaking to the sight of blood, her composure slips. Her counselor taught a valuable way of coping with the memories – Joanna will draw pictures of “him” and throw them into a fire, and then cut up and mutilate wieners before throwing them into the pit, too.

 “You have to speak about it – to help yourself, and to help other people,” Alvarado said. “The more that you’re silent, the more it’s going to continue. Sexual abuse happens behind closed doors. And it’ll stay there until you step out of it. On the other end, you’ll find hope and healing, you’ll find support, and you’ll be leading an example for others who don’t know the necessity of taking a stand.”

Alvarado, a film major, decided to increase awareness of child abuse through a documentary once befriending and later dating a survivor. He also learned of other abuses within his own family.

“It was kind of hard for me to understand at first why a child wouldn’t tell,” Alvarado said. “I was watching the ‘Vagina Monologues’ and one of the girls on there said something that really connected, to me. She said, if it’s one in three girls [that will be sexually abused], and one in seven boys, then everybody knows somebody who was sexually abused as a child. Well, it made sense to me. I was sitting right next to one.”

From there, Alvarado found the rest of the crew through an online database offered as a service through Texas Filmmakers. The cast members he found through a survey and posting flyers up throughout Denton.

“At this point in my life, I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Tara said. “I feel like there was some reason I randomly went into Art Six one day and saw the flyer. It all fell into place.”

The first interview occurred in September, and Alvarado now has 24 hours of footage. There will be three cuts of the film – a feature film, a 32-minute short version and a 13-minute child advocacy video. The rough version of the short film debuted at Movie Tavern to a full house of 300 people.

“I felt very proud,” Smith said. “I’m really happy with the turnout. I feel like a better person now that I’ve done this. I think this has opened up other things. It was just amazing to me.. I think I’ll always be an advocate, and I can’t say that I ever said that before being apart of this film. Now, I’m like, wow, I’m a survivor. I need to tell my story.”

After the film, representatives from Men Against Violence, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, the Child Advocacy Center, Court-Appointed Special Advocates and Bikers Against Child Abuse spoke about the issues presented in the film. This discussion was taped and will be added on the end of the film for future audiences.

“I want people to be enraged when they see it,” Smith said. “I want them to be inspired to do something. Whether it be to talking about it, sharing their stories, going to counseling. The general thing is that I want people to talk about it and to be more aware of it. I want everyone to realize that it is a problem with everyone in society. It affects everyone and people don’t really take that in.”

The film’s website, www.survivorspace.com, offers more insight to the film and its cause.

“People think that child molestation happens from the weirdo that jumps out of the bushes,” Lynnette Nadeau, publicity manager for “Broken Silence,” said. “That’s not the case. The child molester comes in through your front door at your invitation. It is almost always somebody that know the family, that knows the child very well. And that’s what makes this such an insidious thing.”

Often times, this makes the reporting process difficult for the child and the family.

“And that is why, when the child makes an outcry, a lot of times people are reluctant to believe it,” Nadeau said. “They’ll say, “Oh, Pastor Bob did this to you? Are you sure?” And then that’s when the child thinks to themselves “well, maybe I’m the one who’s crazy, maybe it didn’t happen, maybe I misunderstood it, maybe it was okay.” Going through the process, for a child, of reporting their abuse is traumatic. The abuse is traumatic and resolving it is traumatic.”

While statistically, Nadeau said, one in four girls and one in seven boys has been sexually molested, these facts only come from reported cases.

“One of the favorite tactics of a child molester is to tell the child, ‘if you let me do this to you, then I wont hurt your sister or your brother,’” Nadeau said. “The perpetrator will tell the child that by acquiescing to their demands, they won’t hurt the other siblings. Often times that one child becomes the focus target or victim, until that child reaches  a certain age, at which point the child loses attractiveness for the perpetrator. And then indeed they go on to prey on the other siblings. And then it is at that point that the first child that was injured will come forward.”

Since children are taught to obey authority figures, reporting them is an extremely difficult, but necessary, task.

“On average, a pedophile will have molested eight different children before they are caught the first time,” Nadeau said. “They are finding more and more, they are coming to understand, that there is little you can do the cure a pedophile. There is no cure. It is their preferred partner for sex, is a child.”

“Broken Silence” points to prevention as the main solution to child molestation. The more society is aware of and speaks out on the issue, the better equipped they are to stop it.

“It was the same thing happening to the people who went through it, it was the same circumstances, and I just assumed it had to have the same solution,” Alvarado said. “Because that’s how you get past it yourself, that’s also how you prevent things from happening in the first place. You have parents who are educating their children, you have organizations that are backing up the ones that this is happening to, and the sooner you get people in to help these children –the sooner the better. And you can see that in the interviews. The way they’re dealing with things, it’s almost like you can gauge how much and how negatively it affects them by what the family did. It’s almost like who was there to help them made the difference in how they deal with it.”

The documentary, and the team who created it, hopes to help those who went through abuse themselves, as where as educate those who haven’t.

“What we want people to come away with is if you’ve been sexually abuse, you’re not alone,” Nadeau said. “The only way to heal is by coming forward. The other thing that will help you to heal is to know that there are thousands of other people who’ve been through what you’ve been through. And there are organizations and agencies now who are able to help you get through this. By maintaining silence, you allow these perpetrators to continue hurting other children.”