In the past four years, Buda residents Mark and Ana Polanco have fostered 17 children. In March they completed the adoption process for three children.

“There’s an epidemic in Texas with children going into the [foster care] system,” Mark Polanco said. “What’s really sad is they’re having trouble finding foster families to take in a lot of these kids.”

According to statistics from Court Appointed Special Advocates of Central Texas, an organization helping foster children in Hays, Caldwell, Guadalupe and Comal counties, the demand for child advocacy services is nearly twice as high as the number of volunteers.

In 2015 the organization began a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million with the intention of opening a new headquarters on Hunter Road in San Marcos. The organization hopes the 6,000-
square-foot facility will help it keep pace with the growing need for services within its four-county service area.

The growing calls for reform to the Child Protective Services system is not unique to Central Texas. A bill approved by the Texas Senate and forwarded to the state House of Representatives could overhaul the Department of Family and Protective Services, which would bring changes to the foster care system.

“A lot of times you have kids that are going through shelters and sleeping on cots in CPS offices,” Mark Polanco said. “I think it’d be great to have a CASA worker to help on their behalf. The whole system is chugging along, but it could be a whole lot better.”

CASA’s role

CASA advocates for abused and neglected children in the court system by recruiting, training and supporting volunteers from the community, board member Seth Worley said.

Children who have come into the CPS system through abuse, neglect or abandonment are assigned a guardian ad litem, a legal term for a representative for the benefit of the child, he said. CASA volunteers tasked with being a guardian ad litem are responsible for the child throughout their court case, including driving them to and from hearings, doctor appointments, and getting to know the child and their situation. A volunteer adds a valuable consistency to a child’s life, Worley said.

“An attorney’s not going to be able to get into the details of a child’s life, nor understand the complexity of their home life, their struggles that they’re experiencing because of the abuse or abandonment,” he said.

The explosive population growth in Hays County has also led to an increase in reported cases of child abuse, abandonment and neglect, Executive Director Norma Castilla-Blackwell said. In 2016, CASA of Central Texas served nearly 500 children in Hays, Caldwell, Comal and Guadalupe counties.

Based on population growth projections, CASA’s ability to serve children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned will still fall short of projected demand for services by 2020, even if the expanded office on Hunter Road is constructed.

CASA’s San Marcos office, located on the second floor of the Hays County Courthouse, is being leased from Hays County, CASA Development Director Tricia Schneider said. A permanent location will increase CASA’s ability to train volunteers and serve children, she said.

The organization has raised about 25 percent of its goal to build a new 6,000-square-foot facility to house training and administrative offices, Development Director Tricia Schneider said. If all goes according to plan, the new facility will be open by fall 2018, she said.

CASA Clients & Volunteers

A child’s perspective

San Marcos resident Keimche Wickham entered foster care when she was 15. When she was assigned her CASA volunteer, she was living in a shelter and was beginning the transition into the home of a foster family who would later adopt her.

Wickham’s CASA volunteer was a “grandmotherly” woman in her 60s who would take her out for meals, Wickham said.

“When you’re going through that kind of stuff, just going to lunch at a sit-down place is a big deal,” Wickham said. “I was eating lunches cafeteria-style [in the shelter]. You appreciate little things like [going to restaurants] when it’s taken away from you.”

Her CASA volunteer was there for emotional support and was also the first person to talk to Wickham about pursuing higher education. It was the first time she considered college as an option for herself, she said.

“I don’t think people realize how important it is to have someone believe in you, especially coming from a background that’s less than ideal,” she said.

Today, Wickham is completing her master’s degree to become a licensed professional counselor so she can work with children or families. She also got married; she and her wife plan to go through training to become CASA volunteers.

“The smallest thing you can do for a child, like taking them out to lunch, might not seem like a big deal for somebody else.” she said. “But it makes a world of difference. It does.”

System changes looming

There may be changes on the horizon for the state’s methods of handling cases of abused, neglected or abandoned children.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, authored Senate Bill 11, which would restructure the Department of Family and Protective Services and lead to changes in the way the state handles foster care; CPS; relative and kinship caregiver support; and services for child abuse, neglect and abandonment prevention.

As of April 12, the bill had been approved in the senate and referred the House Committee on Health & Human Services.

One much-discussed aspect of the bill is the potential that individual CPS cases could be outsourced to private organizations.

“We want to make sure we’re at the table while they’re making those decisions,” Castilla-Blackwell said. “We are trying very hard to work collaboratively with CPS. They’re overworked and underpaid. CASA is working very hard to be a resource to [CPS] so we can better serve the children and the state of Texas.”

She said she hopes that the Legislature’s primary focus will be kept on the children’s best interest and that they will be kept at the center of all the changes that need to happen.

“CASA has played and can continue to play a crucial role as a stakeholder for what’s happening,” Castilla-Blackwell said. “Our hope is that our legislators will continue to seek CASA’s input and that when they are writing these laws, CASA [volunteer advocates] will continue to be appointed guardian ad litem so that CASA can represent the best interests of the children.”

The importance of a child’s access to a CASA volunteer advocate cannot be overstated, Castilla-Blackwell said.

“They make a big difference in a child’s life because they’re the most consistent thing. Kids move from placement to placement and they move from one city to another, or they move schools,” she said. “So who is the one who follows those children? The CASA volunteer. And that’s what makes the difference.”