Dixie Sims knows a thing or two about being a mom. She has four children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She is also a retired registered nurse.
Now she is extending her talents to a new collection of children — youngsters in need of a Court Appointed Special Advocate — CASA.
Dixie, 71, and her husband Cecil, 78, have been volunteers with CASA since March 2008 and were recently honored by the Gila County CASA Program with the Award of Excellence.
The Sims’ have had four CASA cases involving five children. None of these cases have been easy ones. Their first case was a teenager who had a baby while assigned to the couple. The teen was placed in foster care in Mesa shortly after CASA took the case. So Sims traveled to Mesa to work with the teen.
Their second case was a teenage boy and he was placed in the Valley. So the couple was again traveling to complete their work with the teenager.
Their third case was with a developmentally disabled teenage girl. This CASA team went above and beyond in advocating for this young lady. While they were her appointed advocate they nominated the teen for a Jane Lindsey “I Can Do It Award,” which she won.
Their present case is their toughest yet. They have two boys on this case and they are traveling once again as one child is in foster care in Queen Creek and the other in Glendale and the court hearings are in Globe.
Cecil and Dixie have logged more than 5,000 miles and 1,160 hours working on their CASA cases.
Relating how they became involved with CASA, Sims said, “We both did a lot of volunteering individually and wanted to find something we could do together, so we went to a CASA coffee to find out about the program.”
She was very surprised to learn there are more than 10,000 children in out-of-home (foster) care.
“CASA advocates for the best interest of the child. We have always liked kids and were involved in Scouts and sports. Learning there were these children in need was appealing and very intimidating,” Sims said.
For instance, going to court was something they were not familiar with.
“The children have Child Protective Services and an attorney working for them, but they all have big caseloads, CASA volunteers are usually just assigned one case, so we can devote a lot of time talking to the child and getting to know the people in their lives,” she said.
Volunteers don’t just sign up and get assigned a child, they are given training on what their duties are, what they can and cannot do for a child and how to handle different situations and where to go for help.
It was two or three months before the Sims were assigned a child.
In addition to the training, they had to be fingerprinted, take a lie detector test and be individually interviewed.
Sims said the training and background checks would easily fit into just about anyone’s schedule.
There are challenges and frustrations. Cecil said for him the challenge was all the traveling they have had to do.
“The most frustrating thing for me is there are so many parents (in the program) who don’t take advantage of all the services available to help them reunite their family. Family reunification is always the hope and … (many parents) don’t take advantage (of the services) and it’s so harmful to the children,” Dixie said.
She said if a volunteer doesn’t want to or can’t travel, the coordinator will work with them.
“Our coordinator Katrisha Stuler, CASA manager, is great,” Dixie said.
She added Stuler has provided lots of support and the training programs have been interesting and very relevant to the needs of the children.
“She makes sure the volunteers are prepared for their court dates,” Dixie said.
It was Stuler’s support and training that helped Sims overcome any hesitancy she may have had about becoming a CASA.
“I wish now I had done it years ago, it’s so worthwhile,” she said.
She said the judges they deal with are also very good — Peter Cahill, Robert Duber and Gary Scales.
There are lots of good programs for helping the children, in fact, Dixie said she was pleasantly surprised at the services available for the children.
The rewards of being a CASA for the Simses is seeing a good outcome for the child.
“It’s rewarding to see the kids grow and bloom when they are given love, stability and safety. Safety is of paramount importance,” she said.
As CASA volunteers, she and Cecil just get to spend time with the children, maybe as infrequently as just once a month, but sometimes as often as possible. The time together helps build a relationship that makes it easier for the child to talk to the them and to learn to trust them.
“You have to have a relationship with the child,” Dixie said.
A CASA has the responsibility of gathering as much information about their individual child’s situation as they can. With a court order, they can talk to their teachers and anyone else in their lives, but unless they have a trusting relationship with the child, all the information is not really in context, Dixie said.
While the time spent with their assigned child involves some serious experiences, Dixie and Cecil also try to make the time together fun. For example, with their most recent case, they have taken the boys to sporting events, since that is a big interest and have even taken them fishing.
“We have been able to have a good relationship with all the children we’ve been assigned,” Dixie said.
A CASA volunteer may also interact with a child’s biological parents, but that is on a case-by-case basis and also work with the foster parents.
“Anyone who has even the slightest interest in becoming a CASA should go to one of the coffees or just give CASA a call. Anyone can do it, they don’t have to have any special training — that is provided.
“There are so many kids that need someone to stand up and do what’s best for them,” Dixie said.
She said she wished parents who feel they’re at the end of their rope would get the help that’s out there before things become a crisis. All the mental health providers in the community have services to help parents and often they can be made available at reduced costs.
For more information about the Gila County CASA program, call Katrisha Stuler, CASA manager, at (928) 474-7145 or go online to www.azcasa.org.