By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA
One of my clearest memories from my juvenile justice days is of meeting a young boy in a juvenile detention facility in West Texas.
I was being shown around the facility, but I was having trouble paying attention to what the detention officers were telling me. All I could focus on was this horrible sound – a sound that I’ve never forgotten, but to this day is nearly impossible for me to describe.
When I asked the officers what the noise was and where it was coming from, they took me back to a cell where they were holding a young boy. He couldn’t have been older than 12. He had this little cherub face and these sweet, rosy-red cheeks… and he was absolutely sobbing. Desperate sounds of pain. There’s this book called “When Rabbit Howls” – an autobiography of the author’s struggle with dissociative identity disorder. When rabbits are in pain, they make a very specific, gut-wrenching noise. In the book, the author described hearing survivors of traumatic experiences making the same sort of sound. This little boy’s outcries reminded me of that book.
When I inquired as to why they were holding him there, they said it was “because he wouldn’t take his meds.” So I asked the boy: “Why won’t you take your medication? What’s going on?” He composed himself enough to explain to me that every day, he was being sent to school with a paper bag full of meds. Each medication, 12 in total, was designed to counteract the side effects of the one before it. He had gotten to the point where he had decided that 12 pills was “just too many,” so… he stopped taking them. His school didn’t know what to do about it – so here he was, in a detention cell.
All I could think about was, How come this little boy has more sense than anyone working with him? Why does he have to be the one to say 12 medications is too many for a child his age?
Another story from early on in my career that sticks with me comes from my time working with the Informal Adjustment Division of Travis County Juvenile Court. A woman walked into my office one day – she was striking; powerful looking. She had to be at least 6 feet tall. I briefly thought she was talking to herself until I saw that behind her was a 7-year-old boy. She, for lack of a better way of saying it, threw him in a chair with a suitcase, turned to look at me and then said, “I’m tired of dealing with him. You take him.”
All I could think about was the trauma that boy must have been grappling with. As strong as his mother seemed, she was ready to give up on a little kid.
After a long conversation there in my office, the two did end up going back home together; and I hope that, based on our conversation that day, the mother reexamined her relationship with her son and started doing everything in her power to heal it. I also hope she reached out to her family and community and asked them for the support she clearly needed. Because that was a child who, as a result of that kind of scarring – that rejection from the person who he should have been able to count on to love him unconditionally – could have very well ended up in the juvenile justice or foster care system later on in life if things didn’t change.
Relationships can make or break lives. This is something that has been reinforced for me time and time again, both in stories like these from my juvenile justice days and in my role here at CASA. At the end of the day, quality connections – loving families, caring teachers, supportive communities – are one of the strongest indicators (and predictors) of child well-being. They are absolutely essential for a child to thrive, and if, for whatever reason, they aren’t there for them when they need them, the child almost inevitably suffers.
If that 7-year-old’s mother had more support from her family and community in the first place, there’s a good chance she would have never ended up in my office talking about giving up on him, and so much pain could have been prevented. And as for the boy in the detention cell, he’d likely be in a much brighter situation if only someone in his life, a doctor or teacher for example, had decided to do something about his overmedication.
Connection-starved children can resort to desperate measures, and as we know, those who have been removed from their homes tend to be the most connection starved of all. The children in our overburdened CPS system are still slipping through the cracks too often: needs are incorrectly or inadequately addressed; side effects, trauma and loneliness manifest as “bad” behavior; and they end up in cells, on the streets, or worse. And when it comes down to it, it’s because the adults in their life have failed them.
That’s why CASA volunteers are so critical for children in foster care. A well-trained and committed volunteer can intervene at this critical turning point and help turn things around for the better. They can speak up for a child when they can’t speak for themselves, fight for their best interest, and help to identify and engage others who can provide desperately needed love, support, familiarity and stability both during and after their time in state care.
I still think about stories like the ones I’ve shared here. They’re important to remember, because they fuel me in my role here at Texas CASA as the statewide network continues to grow and improve. Relationships – feeling connected to, safe with, and loved by others – are an incredible source of healing, and every child in foster care deserves the opportunity for lifelong connections who will help them live successful, happy lives, long after our involvement ends.
If you are not currently involved with CASA, I ask you today to consider how you can play a part in making a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children. Are you ready to take the first step towards becoming a CASA volunteer? Visit BecomeACASA.org to learn how you can speak up for a child who needs you. You can also support the work of Texas CASA by making a secure online gift that will benefit the local CASA volunteer advocacy programs across the state.