The courtroom and legal process can be scary for children. It certainly was for me.
My first experience with the justice system came when I was only 15. I was one of the nation’s first school-shooting survivors and was being prepared to testify at the trial of the shooter. Thankfully, on the first day of the trial he entered an Alford plea and my testimony was not required.
The whole experience, however, left me feeling confused and afraid of anything relating to courtrooms, judges, police officers and attorneys.
It was years before I learned to conquer those fears and it happened in the most unlikely way: I became a CASA (court appointed special advocate). CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court and other settings.
While the circumstances for being in court were vastly different for me and the children assigned to me, I imagined our fear of the legal system would likely be the same.
My first case involved a 15-year-old girl, the same age I was when the school shooting occurred. She had been in and out of the system for six years and had been in more than 16 different placements. During our first meeting at a residential facility I asked what word would describe her best and without hesitation she responded, “institutionalized.”
When she spoke, her words were like ice. Her posture screamed “Leave me alone. I already hate you.” But the look in her eyes told a much different story. Behind a veil of indifference was a girl who just wanted a place to call home and someone to call “mom.”
I vividly remember my first day in court as her CASA.
While walking up the stairs to the courtroom my chest began pounding and my vision suddenly became spotty. I was in full-blown panic and wanted desperately to run back out the door. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t just about me this time. It was about a child lost in the system and her right to have a voice in the courtroom where her future would be decided.
I went to the bathroom to get myself together and when I glanced in the mirror I saw the reflection of a scared teenage girl ... the same girl who once went to a big courthouse to testify against her perpetrator but never got to use her voice. Right then and there I made a promise to myself and my CASA child that things would be different this time.
I walked out of the bathroom and into the courtroom still afraid, but determined to use my voice for a child who felt unwanted and forgotten. When the court session was over I had kept my promise, to both my CASA child and myself.
Since that day, I have been blessed to be a CASA for 13 children ranging in age from six weeks to 17 years old. I have seen children reunited with their parents and witnessed others who became orphans after losing their only parent to a drug overdose.
In each and every case, these children have taught me invaluable lessons that I could not have learned any other way. I have learned how to be brave and how to face your fears. I have learned that happiness is a choice (and so is forgiveness). I have learned how to fall and how to rise strong. I have also learned that mocha frappuccinos make a great first impression with strong willed teenagers!
Becoming a CASA has not only allowed me to be a voice for children in need, but it helped me find my own.
Brittney Thomas of Lexington has been a CASA volunteer for almost two years.
To learn more or volunteer at CASA, call 859-246-4313 or go to www.lexingtoncasa.com.
To volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate: You must be at least 21 years old, willing to submit to various background checks, able to commit to at least two years (the average length of a case), complete a 30-hour training class, take an oath of confidentiality and have at least five hours a month to volunteer.
CASA of Lexington is expanding into Bourbon County and can currently take up to 76 more volunteers. To be part of the next training class beginning Jan. 10, contact Melynda firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-246-4313. With the inclusion of Bourbon, only 42 of Kentucky’s 120 counties will have a CASA program.