A World of Difference: Mateo’s Story

Fourteen-year-old Mateo* spent 10 years in foster care and lived in at least 10 different placements before he was appointed a CASA volunteer. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was living in a residential treatment center, secluded from his family, friends and everyone else he had known and loved as a child.

After 10 years of his moving from placement to placement, many people had given up on Mateo. At the time his CASA volunteer joined the case, it seemed he had no one.

In September 2020, Big Country CASA volunteer Michael Jones was appointed to advocate for him. Today, less than a year later, Mateo is living with family members and looking forward to starting a new school year in his hometown. He’s been reconnected with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and more—40+ family members!

When Michael first met him, Mateo was “not much of a talker,” Michael said. Michael quickly realized that the best way to get to know him was by bonding through sports.

Michael Jones, Mateo’s CASA volunteer.

“What I discovered with Mateo is that if you got him physically doing something—playing basketball, shooting pool—he’d open up a little bit,” Michael said. “I’d just start asking him about his life, and every time I went to visit him, I’d learn a little more.”

During one of his visits to Mateo’s residential treatment center, Michael and Mateo completed some Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) tools, including the Three Houses tool. The goal of CFE is to find and engage family members and family friends who may be able to provide support. Using these tools, Mateo was able to identify names of people he remembered from 10+ years ago who he wanted to reconnect with. Michael’s CASA supervisor Wendy Hollabaugh helped create a 40+ person list of potential people to reach out to. Since then, Wendy has been reaching out to Mateo’s family on both parents’ sides, one by one, to re-engage them.

Michael and Wendy’s family-finding efforts quickly proved themselves fruitful. In early July, Mateo moved out of the RTC he had been in for the past two years to live with his aunt Marie*, in a familiar community. He is set to start his freshman year of high school in the school district he first attended, and he is excited to reconnect with old friends. To assist him with the transition from the residential treatment center to public school, Michael helped get Mateo signed up for football camp—something the two had been talking about for a while.

“He’s very excited about going back to school here,” Michael said. “I want him to be happy, I want him to be in football, I want him to be involved in school and be as normal of a teenager as he possibly can be.”

Besides being fun and keeping him active and healthy, football will help Mateo reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

Mateo has two siblings: a younger sister, Rita*, and an older brother, Andrew*. Andrew and Mateo have been able to stay connected, mostly through letters, with Michael’s help. About a month ago, the two brothers had a phone call—the first time they had spoken to each other in nearly two years. Rita’s adoptive parents are not currently allowing her to have contact with her siblings, but Michael and Wendy are hopeful that this will change. Mateo’s father is currently out of the picture, but everyone on the case is hopeful that he can rebuild a positive, healthy relationship with his mother.

Mateo’s case is still open. But now, instead of struggling to survive, he is making new relationships, trying extracurricular activities and anticipating a new school year.

Whatever happens for Mateo, Michael and Wendy will be there to support him, every step of the way.

*Names changed for privacy.