Paul and Melly Wright were court appointed special advocates for Katie Davis, a child who was in foster care. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

Protecting the Children

Katie Davis knows what it is like to feel isolated, a child without a family set adrift in a foster-care system after being betrayed by an adult.

But as she bounced from foster home to juvenile detention to a residential-care facility over a period of about eight years, Davis had a lifeline: Court Appointed Special Advocates Melly and Paul Wright.

The Wrights saw Davis at leasttwice a month to determine hermental, emotional and physical needs, and they made recommendations to the court to provide services to best meet those needs.

"They went to court for me about two or three times when I got in trouble," said Davis.

Now 18 and aged out of the system, Davis is ready to enrollin Rogue Community College to become a pediatric nurse. She knows how badlykids need advocates who listen and understand, she said.

"I like working with kids," Davis said.

"They're pure. You can teach them so much and you can learn from them, too."

Davis was lucky. A lot of teens don't have CASAs.

There are 152 CASA volunteers, with 18 more in training. But many more are needed, said Jennifer Mylenek, executive director of CASA of Jackson County.

Mylenek said 510 children remain classified as wards of the court who do not have the benefit of this advocacy.

"If a child has a CASA, he or she will have a 2 percent chance of being re-abused," Mylenek said. "If not, there is a 50 percent chance."

More than half of the children needing CASAs are younger than 6. Children who are too young to articulate their own needs are the most vulnerable, she said.

"Since CASA does not have enough volunteers to serve all of the eligible children, we must triage the cases, giving top priority to the most serious cases of abuse and neglect," Mylenek said.

Adopted at an early age with her younger sister, Davis was removed from her adoptive home after she disclosed to a counselor she had been sexually abused. Davis became a ward of the court when she was 10 and was placed in foster care in June 2001.

"I went to different foster homes until I was 16," Davis said. "Then I got into some trouble. I got locked up."

Davis ended up in a residential-care facility in Ashland where she got the help she needed to battle her drug use and her demons.

The Wrights were there to help Davis through her struggles. The teen says she appreciated their help, though she admits she didn't make it easy for them.

"At first I was really suspicious," said Davis. "They acted like they cared. I pushed and pulled and called them names when they tried to help me. But, in all reality, I loved it."

Having been foster parents in California for 20 years, the Wrights were not fazed by Davis' initial rejection, Paul Wright said. They expected she'd rebel against their efforts to get close, he said.

"Teenagers are usually so damaged they have trouble connecting with anyone," he said.

In reality, the Wrights provided the most consistent adult presence in her life, Davis said.

"Especially if it was Christmas or my birthday," Davis said. "Sometimes they were the only ones who gave me a card."

Determined to get her life back on track, Davis completed her drug rehabilitation classes in 2007. She graduated from high school after a stint living with extended family. Now she plans to enroll in RCC in April to start her nursing training.

"I just want to live the right way," Davis said.

Davis said she often still feels her "life is going crazy." But she credits her ability to "deal with it" to the help she got along the way from her CASAs.

"They're good people," she said.

The Wrights, now in their mid-80s, recently have retired from the program. But they encourage others to join and make a difference in a child's life.

"It's such a good program," said Melly Wright. "The training is excellent and the support is excellent."

Judges count on CASAs to help them determine what is in the child's best interest, said Rebecca Orf, who was a Jackson County Circuit Court judge for 14 years before retiring in 2008.

Many of Orf's cases involved children in foster care, she said.

"They are often the most complex, troublesome, difficult and important cases that can come before a court," Orf said.

Judges consider the child's emotional, physical and developmental issues and identify threats to their safety. They rely heavily on CASA recommendations in these dependency cases, Orf said.

"The CASA is usually the best investigator in a case in terms of who they've talked to and what information they've gathered," Orf said. "The CASA is the only party whose sole role is to advocate for what is best for the children. CASAs are a party to the case and can legally access all records on behalf of the child."

Judges, lawyers and caseworkers can come and go. CASAs often are the only person the child remains in consistent contact with throughout the duration of his case, she said.

"It takes special people to be CASAs," Orf said. "It's emotionally tough. We don't have enough volunteers. Every child needs and deserves a CASA."

Jackson County CASA volunteers span a wide age range, from 23 to 90 years old, said Emily Canete, CASA program administrator.

"We have attorneys, scientists, social workers and moms," Canete said. "We want somebody who's certainly not afraid of speaking their voice."

Amity Williamson, 29, and her mother, Sherry Stewart, 46, completed the 40 hours of training required to become a CASA less than two weeks ago. Stewart had been a CASA previously in Deschutes County, but this is Williamson's first foray into the program. She described the training as intense, informative and eye-opening.

"It has prepared me to help these children get through what they are about to go through," she said.

Most importantly, the training taught Williamson what resources were available for children in the foster-care system, and how to effectively access them. From dental visits to therapy sessions to court reports, "we are the child's voice," she said.

Sometimes parents and child are reunited and the family members move on with their lives. But not before the adults have completed mandatory parenting and drug and alcohol treatment programs, which can take months. CASAs help families by encouraging and motivating the parents, Williamson said.

"We need to know about these resources to help these parents succeed," said Williamson. "And to help these kids get to a safer, better place with their parents."

Joe O'Connor, 79, has been a CASA volunteer for more than six years. Some of O'Connor's CASA children have been reunited with their parents. Others were adopted into a new home.

"In every case, I stand up for the child," said O'Connor.

One of O'Connor's cases involved a young boy who came into the foster-care system at age 7.

"He'd never been to school," said O'Connor. "He was a bright kid, but he came from a drug environment."

O'Connor saw that the boy was enrolled in school, and he met regularly with counselors, teachers and the principal.

"By the end of the year, the boy was caught up," O'Connor said. "He was really bright."

The boy ultimately was returned to his father, who had been incarcerated. The father "rose to the occasion and did everything to get his child back," said O'Connor.

O'Connor, the boy and the father stayed in contact. The trio even made a trip to Salem to lobby for funding programs that benefit children. It was the boy's impromptu speech that impressed the state legislators, O'Connor said.

"I was so pleased," he said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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