In this piece, Lauren Mueller recounts how her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) empowered her to change her life for the better.
We escaped from my mother’s abusive second husband in the middle of the night; me, my little sister, my mother and our dog in a small black coupe. After more than a year of severe physical and emotional abuse, my mother couldn’t take it.
We drove from Ohio to Colorado, where my mother was arrested for driving under the influence, and my sister and I were placed in foster care for six weeks while she was in rehab. When she got out, we thought she was better and that was the end. But we were wrong.
My mother frequently left my sister and me at the home of a family “friend.” He sexually molested me, and my mother didn’t believe me. I spent many nights wide awake on the man’s fold-out couch, waiting for him to come down the stairs.
I excelled in school, but was constantly terrified at home. As I tried to do homework, my mother would scream at me about how fat and ugly I was. She punched, hit and threw me down stairs, and I was locked in the basement when I tried to fight back.
I have memories of being chased with a butcher knife, of hiding in closets and running away with my little sister. My mother took me to two different psychologists and medicated me to the point that I pulled out my hair and picked off my skin.
I went into foster care for the second time at age nine after my mother gave up custody. I was terrified, fully convinced that I was worthless, and had only a plastic bag with a few personal items.
There are so many people in the life of a foster child. I went through five total foster placements, and had 11 foster parents, at least 10 therapists, over a dozen caseworkers, three guardians ad litem, and many judges and child welfare professionals who came in and out of my life. The only thing I was certain of was that they wouldn’t be around forever.
There was one person I came to be sure of, though. I had a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer when my second case was opened. CASA volunteers are appointed by a judge to advocate for an abused or neglected child in the court system.
My CASA volunteer was the first person to be a consistent presence in my life. The caseworkers and other child welfare professionals I had were passionate, but I knew that they were paid to see me. Being paid is not a bad thing, of course, but I wasn’t sure that anyone actually wanted to see me except for my CASA.
She showed up because she wanted to. She took me to the library because she wanted to. She sang in the car with me, took me to the amusement park and told me funny stories because she wanted to.
Her legitimate interest in me made me feel empowered. Like maybe I could do something for someone else, too. She helped me get a grant to clean up a railroad area, and I was in the newspaper. She gave me a copy, and bought them for my biological mom, my foster parents and even the judge. She championed my every achievement and supported me through my failures.
She made me feel worthy of her time, and I never had to work for her love. Her commitment was unconditional.
We lost touch after I left care, and eventually, at 15, I ended up being placed with my best friend’s family. They actually grounded me when I broke the rules! I learned that that was love — setting appropriate boundaries and asking me to follow them was healthy. I just never knew. It was the first time I’d ever felt truly safe, and sure that the man in the house wouldn’t creep into my room.
I’ve been speaking on topics of child welfare and foster care advocacy for about six years, and I recently asked my best friend’s parents to adopt me. They said yes. Soon, I’ll have a last name I’m proud of.
None of this would be possible if I hadn’t had a CASA volunteer, and later, a family who did not need to be biological to show me that they loved me. I ended up graduating from high school early, going to a private college on a full scholarship and am now a professional in the child welfare field. But before any of that could happen, someone had to truly care about me.
Family comes in many forms. Many foster children end up in prison, having children before they’re ready, or on state and federal assistance. We can avoid these all-too-common outcomes, but only if someone tells us we’re worth it.
Someone told me that I was, and now, I’m in a position to tell others. The advice I have for current and former foster children is simple: You are worth it. You are worth your peers’ time. You are worth your family’s time. But most of all, you are worth your own time. Love yourself and your family will find you.
Lauren Mueller is a midwestern transplant living in Denver and working as a management professional in the child welfare field.
Written By Chronicle Of Social Change