When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, U.S. government analyst Jimmy Oates found himself with flexible work hours that allowed him to pursue a volunteer opportunity he’d been interested in for 20 years—becoming a court appointed special advocate (CASA) for CASA-EP. The Martinsburg, WV, resident had considered waiting until retirement, but when he realized he could balance his role as a CASA with his work and family obligations, he told himself, “You need to do this now…kids need help now.”
He has taken on two cases since being sworn in as a CASA volunteer in September 2021. The first case involves a 4-year-old boy who is living with his grandmother due to his parents’ past drug use. Oates is working to hopefully reunite the boy with his mother, who has been clean for the past few months. The father’s parental rights have been terminated, so he is no longer involved in this case.
The second case involves an 8-year-old girl who has witnessed sexual abuse and who has had emotional meltdowns while dealing with multiple placements. The girl is currently living in a foster home and may need to be placed in a treatment center. Oates is working to ultimately help her find a permanent home, whether that’s back with the girl’s birth mother or in a new home.
CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to check on and advocate for children to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service systems or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case (child) until it is closed. For many children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.
While Oates advocates for a child’s best interest, he knows he can’t control the outcomes of his cases, so he focuses on the small successes along the way. In the case involving the boy, for example, Oates has been able to forge a close relationship with the family because the grandmother lives nearby. He has been able to be a consistent presence for such activities as hanging out and kicking a ball with the boy or responding to requests for help from the grandmother.
Oates received a Christmas card from the family, and at a recent hearing, the mother told the group involved with the case, “’I love you all’—and then she turned to me and said, ‘And I mean you, too, Mr. Oates,’” he said.
In the case involving the girl, Oates helped her celebrate her first real Christmas by giving her gifts along with the family she was staying with at the time. He also helped her complete math and spelling worksheets to make up for missed schoolwork. While Oates had just considered their interactions to be normal conversation, he later learned from the girl’s doctor that he was the first man the girl had felt comfortable enough to talk to at all.
“I tell her that she’s a good girl and a sweet child inside—and I know that all the moves have not helped her,” Oates said. “I just want her to find a permanent home, where she can be settled and people love her and she feels safe and secure…I want to make sure she’s not still being tossed around [to different placements] when she’s 15 or 16.”
Although both cases have involved emotional challenges, Oates has focused on building good relationships with everyone involved. “I commit to transparency and trust,” he said.
In the case involving the boy, for example, Oates is honest with the mother when she expresses impatience. “The Mom has followed all that’s been asked to get her son back,” Oates said, but he tells the mother she needs to be patient because her accelerated rate of success is not typical.
In the case involving the girl, Oates was on hand to help the guardian ad litem (GAL) break the news to the girl that she was being moved again to a different home. Although it was hard to watch the girl have a meltdown, Oates tried to reassure her that she still doesn’t need to go through this process alone. “I say, ‘I’ll be there until they figure this out.’ I am one of the few adults still in her life and stable.”
When dealing with the difficult emotions that can arise during a case, Oates calls upon his Christian faith and his experience helping people through his ministry work, both of which have given him compassion and empathy. He also loves his work and feels he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I don’t know how you can [be a CASA volunteer] because I couldn’t handle…what children have been exposed to,’” Oates said. “But I’ve realized that somebody has to step in and do it. If not me, who?”
Oates said he has received great support from CASA-EP volunteer supervisors and staff, including resources for services to help the kids in his cases. One of his supporters was his volunteer supervisor, David Mulvihill, who praised Oates’ work on his cases. “Jimmy has shined in his role,” Mulvihill said. He described Oates as a caring and mature person—qualities that Mulvihill said help make for a successful CASA volunteer.
“You are the one constant in a child’s life, but I think you don’t always know you’re making a difference in the moment,” Mulvihill said. “You may not know until later with the kid…but to help keep volunteers going, I advise that it’s almost the same reason you do it as a parent—because the kid needs you to.”
Oates also appreciates that no one at CASA-EP put pressure on him to take on more cases than he can handle with his full-time work schedule—a factor that Oates said could help those considering volunteering. He emphasized that taking even one case will have an impact because it can save that kid from getting lost in the system until they age out at 18.
Children with a CASA volunteer have been consistently shown to perform better in school, be half as likely to return to foster care after placement, and spend less time in foster care (on average five months) than their peers who are without an advocate. A CASA volunteer changes a child’s story by giving them a voice and advocating for their individual needs.
Visit MyCASAEP.org to learn how you can get involved or make a donation.Staff Contributor