By John Thompson, USARECNovember 25, 2013
HOUSTON (Nov. 25, 2013) -- Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteers help children and families in turmoil. That is why Staff Sgt. Jonathan Shirley volunteers to work with the courts and area agencies to help find solutions.
Shirley, a Longview, Texas, Center recruiter endured the stress of battle twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan as a helicopter flight engineer, which provided Shirley with the maturity and passion needed to embrace the emotional challenge as a CASA volunteer.
CASA volunteers are everyday citizens appointed by a judge, who advocate for the safety and well-being of children who have been removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect. They assist in the investigations, providing input as to what he or she observes about the family and the child. The judge weighs the information provided by the CASA, state child protective services and the attorney-ad-litem (representing what the children want) to make a ruling on what is best for the family. Sometimes that means separating a child from the home and placing that child in foster care.
After nearly 10 years of military service, Shirley, who grew up in east Texas, returned to use his experience and knowledge of Army opportunities to talk with young men and women about expanding their choices for a future.
He said he feels an obligation to the region and one way to fulfill that obligation is through supporting the community.
"I wanted to volunteer for something that had a major impact," said Shirley. "I have always wanted to give back to my community in east Texas. I found out I could help kids who do not have the home life you or I had and who need someone to speak for them.
The volume of cases Child Protective Services deal with is huge, said Shirley, explaining that some caseworkers have as many as 26 active cases at a time. With that many cases, a caseworker can never spend as much time as they wish on any one case. CASA volunteers work one or two cases at a time and spend much more time with a family than a caseworker.
Amy Canton is a volunteer recruiter and trainer who provided Shirley the 12 hours of CASA training necessary to prepare him to work with his assigned families. She said volunteers are given an understanding of the court system and the CASA volunteer's role. The training walks the person through what they may experience from the time the case begins to when a final legal decision is declared. An average case lasts 12 to 18 months.
Many of the CASA volunteers are women. Canton says the unique perspective men provide is quite useful, especially when there are male children involved.
"Men of all ages, especially young men like Sgt. Shirley, are one of the categories we are trying to diversify in," Canton said. "We have very few men in our organization. I hope we can get more military guys, because that would be awesome."
Volunteers are shadowed by full-time CASA counselors, who use their knowledge and experience to review evaluations by volunteers
Brooke Davis is a sounding board for Shirley, sometimes making suggestions for alternate courses. When he has questions, Shirley consults her to learn about families she counseled. Davis said the background Shirley brings to the table is invaluable -- his experience of working with young Soldiers is a bonus.
"With Jonathan, I don't have to do a lot for him, because I trust that he can trust his instincts," Davis said. "He can relate better to a 15-year-old boy than I can. I am here if he has questions or if he needs guidance. When the court case comes up, I will be there for him to provide any help he may need."
Davis said a 15-year-old boy will share parts of his life and his feelings with a man that he would never share with a woman, as is currently the case concerning one teenage boy with whom Shirley is working. When those feelings and issues can be noted, it adds insight into the family's problems.
Davis said Shirley influences the young man as a role model. The interaction between the two, according to Davis, is helping to move the case forward in the court. The goal is to find the youth a stable, permanent home.
Shirley feels strongly about making a difference in the community and believes if he can help one family or one child forge a better life, he feels it is his duty to roll up his sleeves and invest his time.