This is wonderful story of how a CASA Volunteer can directly affect a child and family. The Foster Care program provides a safe haven for children during periods of family crisis or serve as a bridge for a child awaiting a 'forever family'. So many times the headlines inform us about times when this system does not match our expectations, and that information is needed to help us improve, but it's also nice to hear success stories to inspire us. Hear is such a story from Yolo CASA! To read more about Yolo CASA see HERE for an article from the Daily Democrat.
A Family Cycle of Trauma, Interrupted – A Success Story
Ray experienced childhood trauma - he was molested as a child, his mother committed suicide, his brother died, and his father was a violent alcoholic. In adulthood, Ray saw his life continuing on the same trajectory as he, along with his wife, were long-time drug and alcohol addicts. Then they became parents to a daughter and son: Kathy and Nicky. Ray was poised to pass on the cycle of trauma to his children.
Taking the Big Step
“I love my kids but my actions didn’t show it,” Ray recently reflected. In June of 2012, when Kathy and Nicky were 13 and 4 years old, they were placed in the foster care system due to severe neglect. Court sanctioned supervised visits with the children were allowed and Ray always made an effort to be there for his kids. His wife did not participate in these visitations. However, in December of 2012 both of them missed court dates and immediately lost all parental visitation rights.
In early 2013, Child Welfare Services (CWS) offered them a chance to accept a 30-day drug rehab program – a step that could possibly lead to re-gaining custody of their children. Ray immediately accepted, however his wife refused to participate.
“I still dragged my feet and had to deal with the war going on inside me,” Ray said. A month later a local residential drug treatment facility, notified him of an opening, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to commit. Ray prayed for help on what to do as he walked the streets heartbroken. He continued wandering and found himself near the treatment facility. Although participants need to be clean and sober for 30 days prior to entering the program, Ray was accepted. Hearing the doors shut behind him, Ray told himself “this is for you.”
Thirteen days into the program, at a court appearance in Yolo County’s juvenile dependency court, the judge said, “If you fail, the kids will be adopted out and you’ll forfeit all your parental rights.” Ray knew what was on the line so he found the strength to do what was needed.
“I could never help my kids unless I helped myself,” he realized. His wife never took advantage of the opportunity, but Ray was determined to succeed.
“You don’t know how much I wanted my kids back. I don’t want them to experience the same traumatic experiences I had as a child,” Ray stated.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later. Some children blame themselves for these traumatic events which can trigger strongly negative emotions such as shame, anger, and poor self-esteem. This confusion can persist into adult life and can result in heightened experiences of anxiety, grief, self-blame and guilt, and feelings of helplessness. The ACE Study, published by Drs. Vincent Felitti and Bob Anda in 1998, showed that adults with multiple ACEs in childhood have a profoundly higher risk of suicide, substance abuse, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, depression and other health issues.
CASA Steps In
While Ray was in rehab, Ann accepted the opportunity to become Nicky’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). After meeting Nicky, Ann recognized that he was putting up a wall. Nicky, age 5, was already reacting to childhood trauma. He would hide under the table when anyone came to the house to interact with him. Ann, understanding Nicky needed support, simply went under the table with him for their visit. It’s taken time, but with Ann and his foster mom’s help, Nicky has slowly come out of his shell and now interacts with people and laughs and giggles. As Ray describes, “When I see Nicky with Ann, I see him with his grandmother. Nicky doesn’t have a grandmother so Ann presses on even when he is being difficult.”
Kathy, Nicky’s 16 year old sister, was lucky enough to find Jeanette as her CASA. Jeanette quickly realized that Kathy was having trouble in school and had few positive experiences in her life, but primarily she was concerned with Kathy’s loss of her mother. Jeanette wanted to broaden Kathy’s experiences and develop a trusting relationship. Together they visited San Francisco, rode Amtrak to Martinez with Kathy’s friend, went to Travis Air Force Base to see planes, and watched plays. Jeanette describes her goals, “I want to help Kathy be active by taking walks together and talking about making healthy eating choices. I want to help her with inter-relationship skills and making friends.”
Ray says, “Jeanette gives Kathy someone she can open up to; giving her sound advice.” Ray utilizes Jeanette because of her knowledge and Kathy’s trust in her. When Kathy started part-time work she needed a birth certificate to open a bank account, Jeanette worked with Ray advising how to fund the cost and obtain the certificate. “I want to give both Kathy and Ray on-going support,” says Jeanette. And Ray agrees. “She gives Kathy motherly advice and is very inspirational.”
A Success Story
During rehab Ray took all the life skills classes offered and did what was expected of him from the court and child welfare system. Through his therapy at the drug treatment center he learned how his own early traumatic experiences had shaped his adult behaviors and how his coping mechanisms, like addiction, could continue the cycle of trauma for his children; but he didn’t want that. He wanted to break that cycle. After completing rehab he went into outpatient care and completed the program in 5 months. His social worker commented, “You don’t just do what you have to do, you embrace it.” After 17 months with his children in the foster care system, Ray and his kids were reunited and the case was closed on October 21, 2014.
Ray says, “I’ll never be called a drug addict again. Life is different today. There is stability in the home now.” Ray started attending a local church and has a job providing transportation for a treatment support group. He and his kids feed the homeless on weekends. Ray has moved from transitional housing into his own home. While his wife is still addicted and is not allowed to see the kids, Ray realizes that “I can’t be their mother, but I can love them to death.”
Ray is now 28 months sober. “I want my kids to be whole people, not broken like me. I now understand how my traumatic experiences affected my life. I want to stop the cycle of trauma that has been running through my family. My life is different today. I know what it is to love my kids.” Ray keeps his focus on God at all times because he knows if he doesn’t he could lose what he’s gained. “Kathy told me one day, ‘I love you so much for fighting for me’.” Ray says, “I want my kids to embrace their potential. I loved my kids, but my actions didn’t show it….now they do.”
Ann and Jeannette continue to see Nicky and Kathy and Nicky’s former foster mom still watches him weekly. It takes a community to help kids through the effects of trauma. Ray, Ann, Jeanette, foster mom and the programs that collaborated to help them - like Child Welfare Services, Cache Creek Lodge, and Yolo County CASA - contributed to weave a community network that continues to support the family today. Research shows a child’s brain can change in response to environment. If the toxic stress related to abuse or neglect stops and is replaced by practices that build resilience, the brain can slowly undo many of the stress-induced changes. Ray is working hard to improve his kid’s lives and to replace their past traumatic experiences and memories with positive ones. Ann and Jeanette have been pleased to play a role in the positive changes this family has achieved, and Yolo County CASA is honored to have these advocates supporting our Vision: To champion without compromise for the best interest of every Yolo County foster child.