Cathy Cockerham, Texas CASA Liaison for Program Development, has been involved with the CASA cause for more than 30 years, first at the local level with CASA of Travis County. Today, she serves as a leader for the statewide CASA network, helping CASA programs expand into unserved areas and offering her expertise on stakeholder collaborations as part of our effort to create a better system for the children CASA serves.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’m a fifth generation Texan and grew up in Caldwell, Texas – a very small town where my mom, my maternal grandmother, my grandmother’s mother and father also grew up and lived. And as you might imagine, being from a family that had deep roots in this small town, I grew up under the care, support and “watchful eye” of many family members and friends of the family! Caldwell is very close to College Station and Texas A&M University where my father, and all of my uncles went to school. So when I left for college to attend the University of Texas (as my mother and aunt had) we continued to enjoy within the family the traditional rivalry between these two schools. After graduating from UT, I married, moved to Dallas and began teaching in a middle school in Irving. As with many UT grads, my husband and I loved Austin and were very happy to be able to return a few years later, and it is here that we raised our two children and continue to live.
How did you get involved with CASA?
So in 1985, I was a stay-at-home mom with a kindergartner and second grader when I saw an ad go across the TV screen one evening about being a CASA volunteer. And having experienced concern and worry about some of the students I taught, I called the number and began training to be a CASA volunteer!
It was this very simple beginning that set the course for my life and work with CASA. CASA of Travis County in Austin was just starting. I was in a training class with my still long-time friend and CASA volunteer, Rebel Pais. And a few years later, it was either go back to teaching or throw my “hat in the ring” to work for CASA of Travis County. Travis County CASA’s first director, Sandra Martin, took a chance and hired me, and my employment with the CASA cause began in 1989.
It was a much different CASA that I began with than exists today. We were very much the “new kid on the block,” with judges giving us a chance to prove worthy of participating and providing recommendations for the critical decisions made in the courtroom. And so my real learning began, and continues to this day.
Have you seen CASA grow and change over the years?
As with many who have worked for CASA and in the realm of child protection for many years, we have learned a lot – from history, from studies, from the children and families affected and in this system, from science and trauma and developmental experts, as so on. And as the saying goes – “when you know better you must do better.” So, if you were to ask me “Have you seen CASA grow and change as an organization over the years?” I would say YES!
And I would also champion that we are not through growing and changing! Each and every day I see efforts by those in our organization to become more effective in our role as advocates for children’s best interest, and organizationally in our role to lead and support change in our child protection system to better serve children and families. We know the critical importance attachment plays and that from a healthy attachment other attachments can more easily be formed. We know that connections and relationships are critical for children and for family, too. We understand that healthy relationships and connections are often the cornerstones of resilience and our ability to recover from adversity in life. I believe that this is why CASA’s have made such a positive impact.
CASA volunteers come to this work to connect and form trusting relationships with children and their families. A CASA volunteer can “reach across the aisle” and say to a child or a family member that “No one is paying me to be here – I am here because I care about you and your child, and want what is best.” And while we want the very, very best, we strive to leave bias at the door and seek to assure safety and honoring the fundamental basic need everyone has to belong to a family. I think CASA is growing in many ways to strengthen our ability to engage with a child’s family and in our ability to connect and understand the child’s wishes and needs.
Tell us about your current position at Texas CASA.
As Liaison for Program Development, I support the expansion of CASA in unserved areas across the state. I also bring in my experience with CASA at the local and statewide level to represent Texas CASA in a number of statewide stakeholder collaborations; and assist with Texas CASA’s initiatives and projects such as Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE), our work to promote a more trauma-informed child welfare system, improving CASA advocacy for children in long-term care, and much more. I also serve as Texas CASA’s liaison for the Regional Representatives – six local CASA program Executive Directors who are elected by their region to serve on our board.
Why do you think the work of Texas CASA is important?
Texas CASA was formed in 1989 so that children throughout the state could have a CASA. At that time, CASA had been formed in 13 other cities, and this fearless group of pioneers in these local CASA programs knew that what was most needed was someone to reach out and help others form. For someone to have the job of supporting and connecting all the CASA programs in Texas. So, Texas CASA’s work to grow the network from the then 13 programs in 1989 to 71 programs in 2018, from providing CASA advocates for children in 13 counties in 1989 to providing advocates for children in 217 counties in 2018, was very important work – and it still is.
Texas CASA fulfills a role no other can. Texas CASA serves as a repository of learning and sharing new laws, strong advocacy and collaborations with child protection stakeholders. We bring Legislative Advocacy Teams (LATs) together to discuss needs and issues systemically impacting the children and families we serve, in order to promote greater understanding and support for things that will positively impact child outcomes by our legislature and elected officials. We support local programs in rural communities and large cities by sharing promising practices and effective advocacy through training and conferences. We keep accountability in our CASA network through standards. We work with other statewide groups in education, medical and mental health, trauma-informed care, and with the legal and child protection professionals to further collaboration and promote services and supports our children and families need.
What does CASA mean to you personally?
I don’t think there is ever a better feeling you have in this life than knowing you may have in some small way helped someone. That in some small way, someone’s life is better because you lived. This is what CASA means to me. CASA is an incredible opportunity – an incredible organization and concept that allows people from all walks of life to contribute to the life of a child and family in need.
With more than 30 years of involvement with the CASA movement, Cockerham’s expertise and experience is unparalleled. Throughout her time with CASA, she has worked in a variety of different roles that have helped shape Texas CASA, and the network of CASA programs, into what it is today.