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Commentary: Volunteers devote time to helping children, but get paid with smiles

POSTED: July 31, 2011 12:30 a.m.
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Alina Basha

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Editor's note: The following column accurately reflects the experiences of Alina Basha as a volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates. However, names and some other information have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the children and families involved.

My experience as CASA has honored me with the opportunity of meeting the most wonderful and resilient children, and I am truly enchanted by their smiles, their enthusiasm and their indomitable spirits. I am very proud to be able to share the story of two of my heroes, Nancy and John, whose names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.

Most of us teach our children to be wary of strangers and yet most of the kids that end up in foster care have to follow a stranger's rules, sleep in their beds, learn quickly and familiarize with their new surroundings, without warning. I met 5-year-old John and 6-year-old Nancy two weeks after they had been placed in foster care at the custodial mercy of "total strangers" through no fault of their own.

I wonder what these siblings were doing when they heard the knock on the door, one very different from that of friends visiting our home. This knock was urgent and bound to change their lives forever. A group of policemen burst in like a gust of wind and proceeded to handcuff their mother. Little did John and Nancy know that her being taken against her will would be the last time they would see her.

Once the police are gone, the children's stepfather calms and comforts them and assures them that their Mom will be back soon. But just a couple of days later, he finds out that the mother has been unfaithful to him and he decides he wants a divorce. He chooses not to wait for the mother's release and decides he can no longer take care of the children.

The stepfather makes the decision to call the Department of Family and Children Services, who immediately take the siblings into its care. John and Nancy have no control over their destiny. Their lives have been severed. Not only has their mother's choices altered their lives, but now their stepfather is abandoning them. They are on their own, away from everything that they know dear. They have no choice.

The search for the biological father or other close relatives is fruitless. During these 14 days, John and Nancy meet an array of people, change schools, visit doctors, take tests. No one knows their likes or dislikes. They get bombarded with questions that require answers. They will have to learn quickly, adapt and adjust. They need to follow a new style of discipline and rules that are sometimes imposed rather than explained.

My investigation as John and Nancy's CASA leads me to a maternal aunt that lives on the West Coast. The aunt has not seen her sister in approximately seven years and does not know about John and Nancy, but she is willing, eager and able to help and offers her home as temporary placement.

The wheels of the system are set in motion, a case plan is drawn and an home evaluation with the West Coast state begins. As soon as compliance is reached, the mother should be reunited with her children.

But the unimaginable happens when she is released. She does not contact the authorities nor does she try to see her children. She discards them, leaves them behind as she did with the furniture and as of today, her whereabouts are unknown.

After 282 days in foster care, Nancy and John are picked up at the Atlanta airport by their maternal aunt and they have been living with her and her family for a little bit over four months. The aunt accepts that this placement is "forever" and is willing to adopt.

The siblings have adapted beautifully to their school, their extended family and new-found friends. In very small doses, they are disclosing their experience in foster care which stirs frustration in my soul. Pictures and information of their Mom are available to them, but they don't seem interested. "I want to live here forever," writes Nancy in a recent letter to our judge.

When I'm in a "Nirvana" state of mind, I believe Mom knows that her children are with her family. I dream that she is aware of how hard her sister worked and fought to gain custody of Nancy and John. How she contributed with information and meeting deadlines, opening her home and hearts to her two children and that they are safe and loved.

Then there are the ugly times, when reality settles in my heart and mind, and I realize that there are ego-centered individuals that just don't care. Her children could be anywhere with anybody.

But the one thing that does not change with my state of mind is the absolute knowledge that Nancy and John are safe and happy, that they have every opportunity of growing to be contributing members of society because they know that they matter, that they have a special place in someone's heart, that they are not disposable or interchangeable.

They know now that they will be "permanently" loved.

Alina Basha has been a volunteer with CASA since 2009.



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