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  CASA of Coconino County Honoring Grandparent Caregivers

On Sept. 10, grandparents around the nation will be honored for all the love and support they give to children in their lives. The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program of Coconino County would like to especially honor the grandparents in our community who have taken in grandchildren who were abused or neglected.

In Arizona, 44 percent of kids in foster care are living with kin, either a blood relative or an adult with whom the child has a significant relationship, according to a Department of Child Safety report. Many of these kinship care providers include grandparents, aunts or uncles who have opened their homes to the children who have been abused or neglected.

While the state does provide many services to kinship caregivers, especially those who become licensed through the state, many are taken by surprise and are unsure where they can turn for support. Court Appointed Special Advocates are every day community members who volunteer their time to be an advocate for children in the foster care system. When appointed to a case of a kinship care provider, CASA advocates are often able to connect them with the resources, support and services they need to care for the children.

The CASA Program works because CASA advocates are able to focus on one case and one child at a time. The CASA advocate visits the child monthly and reports back to the judge with what’s happening in the case and makes recommendations for moving forward. The CASA advocate’s unique relationship with the child and outsider perspective helps them effectively advocate for the best interests of the child.

One Coconino County advocate became friends with a Native American grandmother who is raising three of her grandsons, ages eight, seven and eight months. Because of choices that her daughters made, they each lost custody of their children and this Flagstaff grandmother willingly stepped in to provide the boys with a stable loving kinship care home environment. When asked her why, she replied, “Their mother was constantly in and out of jail and I did not want my grandsons in foster care. I picked up applications for emergency legal guardianship from the local law library and brought two of the boys straight home from the hospital. If at all possible, grandparents should step up and take in their grandkids. There have been setbacks, like I had to quit my job, but it has been worth it to keep my grandsons within the family.”

Another story of kinship care: “Our suffering began well before we were born. My younger siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use and each of us suffered the long-term effects. My sister and I were born with severe cleft palates, leading to speech disabilities; my younger sister was born without arches on her feet and was in need of leg braces.

For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother would trade the government assistance that was intended for our food, diapers, clothing and bills for alcohol and drugs. I resorted to stealing and stashing food stamps, which I would take to a nearby grocery store and ask the clerk to help me maximize the amount of food I could purchase.

My story does not stop at neglect. My mother beat me every day – sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. While all of us were neglected, I bore the brunt of the physical abuse.

By the age of 12, I was desperate to find help.

I approached my dance team coach and confessed the abuse I had kept hidden for so many years. She was able to convince my biological mother to let us stay with our paternal aunt and uncle temporarily. Shortly after, we entered the dependency system.

Our CASA volunteer was our voice.

My siblings and I lived in limbo for five long years, as my aunt and uncle fought to gain permanent custody of us. After at least two reunification plans failed, my mother’s rights were severed and my aunt and uncle adopted us. I consider us lucky, as we were not shifted from foster home to foster home. However, we lived in a constant state of fear, thinking that at any moment we could be released back into the hands of the person we desperately needed to escape. The only one we could turn to for answers was our CASA volunteer. She tried to comfort us and guide us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in the courtroom.

I believe my focus and my worldview – that it is not the falling that matters, but the rising every time we fall – is in large part due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer. I thank her for showing me that my biological mother may have taken away my childhood, but I was in control of what I would do with the rest of my life.

The support of my aunt and uncle and my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave a life of suffering behind, graduate valedictorian of my high school class, receive a bachelor’s degree with honors and complete law school. Driven by a desire to save others from the abuse I endured, I was a prosecutor of child in need of care cases for the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office in Topeka, Kansas, for five and a half years. I am now giving back to my country as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corp with the Kansas National Guard.”

This Sept. 10, Grandparents Day, CASA of Coconino County encourages everyone to honor the caregivers from their life by volunteering to help a child in need. For more information on the CASA Program visit CASAofCoconinoCounty.org or call me at 928-226-5433. FBN

By Cindy Payne

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