Columbia Gorge CASA’s Debbie Mayer was named Columbia Gorge United Way Volunteer of the Year last week, as an “outstanding and dedicated advocate for local children in foster care.”
“I was astonished,” Mayer said she felt when she learned of her honor. “I really enjoy being a CASA and I do it because I enjoy it and I want to help kids. I don’t do it for any kind of recognition.”
Susan Baldwin, volunteer manager for CASA — the independent Court Appointed Special Advocate program — wrote in her nomination: “Throughout her long tenure as a CASA volunteer, Debbie has maintained her original enthusiasm to understand and advocate for the needs of abused and neglected children and never misses an opportunity to learn more about their plight and the effects of trauma on their young, developing brains.
“This month marks Debbie’s 10-year anniversary as a CASA volunteer,” Baldwin noted. Mayer, who lives in Underwood, was sworn into service by Judge John Kelly on July 1, 2008; and since that time, she has advocated for a total of 12 children from five families.
Because three of these children came into foster care twice, Mayer has actually been assigned to a total of 15 separate legal cases in Hood River and Wasco counties. On average, Mayer has spent more than two years and hundreds of hours advocating for each of her 15 kids/cases. CASA also represents children in Sherman County.
Mayer said she has grown in confidence as an advocate, recalling her early reticence about standing up and speaking in court. But the big lesson she has learned over the years is this: Judges, and attorneys, want to hear from CASAs.
“I see it in every case I work on: Everyone wants to learn as many perspectives as they can; and it is the CASAs who have spoken with the kids and family members, teachers and others who know them,” she said, noting that CASAs are independent and thus free to think in the broadest possible terms about each child’s case.
“We have that quasi-naïve approach, we can plant the seed of an idea that might get people truly thinking about a solution that will help the child,” she said.
A standout experience with a successful outcome was a first-grader from Parkdale who had been placed with several foster families and experienced abuse in one of the homes, but was then placed with a family he loved and trusted. However, they were moving out of state and the foster system was not going to allow him to go with them.
“He had built a happy relationship with them and as the time of the move neared, he started talking to me and told me he was scared, wondering where he would be sent to and what would happen. It was the day before he turned 7, and brought me to tears,” Mayer said.
“I left and got in my car and went home and wrote a letter to all the parties, telling the story,” she said. “I wanted to let people know what this kid was thinking of. He had a family he wanted to be with and they him.”
A special hearing was called and the boy was allowed to travel with his family and stay with them permanently.
“I’m still in touch, I get a call from the foster mom every couple of months and he is doing well,” Mayer said. “I don’t know (where) here he would have gone. Some of these kids are moved too many times and they can’t recover from the trauma, ever.”
The experience demonstrates that “there are all sorts of ways we can speak up for these kids, and sometimes you can take an alternative course instead of the usual one. It shows how a CASA can help, and keep kids from falling through the cracks.”
Baldwin wrote that “Debbie also has the ability to effectively connect with children she is assigned to (sometimes a feat in itself) as well as with foster parents, biological family and others involved in the child’s life which is critical to her effectiveness as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Debbie is always prepared; there is never a need to remind her of a hearing or meeting, the need to write a CASA court report, or making connections with a child’s teachers, medical providers, counselors, or foster parents. Debbie particularly enjoys lunching with her CASA kids at school.
“Debbie is highly regarded by all of the community partners that she works with in her role as a CASA volunteer. Over the years we have received feedback from judges, attorneys, the juvenile department staff and DHS caseworkers who appreciate and rely on Debbie’s professionalism, tenacity and court report writing skills because she is well-informed but succinct, thorough, fair, honest, and often provides information to the court that is vital to the outcome of the child’s case. Debbie excels at removing barriers that prevent her CASA kids from receiving needed services or supports.
Most of all, Debbie is tireless, curious and kind and has never turned down a CASA case offered to her. Recently she saw a case involving three children through to closure and immediately accepted another high-profile and demanding case. Less than a week after accepting this new assignment, the closed case reopened and her former CASA youth came back into foster care. Although Debbie has just been assigned to advocate for two new children she, without hesitation, agreed to also be re-assigned to her former CASA kids who needless to say were struggling with their sudden return to foster care.”