Editor’s note: Court Appointed Special Advocate Bob McLarty celebrates a milestone Aug. 10 at the college graduation of Jonathan, a young man Bob assisted over the past four years as a CASA volunteer. You don’t need a background in law or justice to become a CASA volunteer. Adults 21 and older who are ready to invest your time, energy and heart as an advocate for a child or youth are likely to agree with other volunteers that, “It wasn’t about what I gave them, it was what they showed me.”
In June of 2014 my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) coordinator in Payson asked me to consider advocating for a child, described as both “difficult and risky,” involved in the juvenile dependency process at the request of the court. I was advised that I could not be in a room with him without a guard or security officer present, due to reports of prior behavior problems.
I reviewed his case, accepted, and my initial meeting was arranged for a visiting room at the Gila County Juvenile Detention Center. Two guards escorted Jonathan into the room. At that moment I thought my CASA coordinator may not have stressed enough just how dangerous this muscular, 14-year-old young man could be.
I told him simply and clearly that I was there to help. I emphasized that I would not abandon him — continuing until he turned 18, maybe even beyond, if he chose. And I immediately felt Jonathan really wanted to trust someone, but hadn’t yet found that within the dependency system. Agencies change personnel, turnover hinders children from building lasting bonds with agency staff who are truly trying to help.
An immediate concern for Jonathan was that he was in Juvenile Detention, surrounded by other young men being held on charges worse than his. Collaborating with the public defender, we presented a police report assuring the court there was no evidence supporting claims against Jonathan, and charges were dismissed.
Having been adopted myself gave me empathy for some of the problems Jonathan faced. I reassured him that I would give him the facts, the truth, and explain the system as I understood it. This gave foundation to a relationship, now a friendship, that has grown over four years. Courts, attorneys, placements — not knowing what’s next or where they will lay their head each night is very unsettling to children. When initially removed from their home, most carry just a few personal belongings along with them in a plastic bag.
Jonathan was moved to a correctional facility in Phoenix, where he earned glowing reports each month at staff meetings. I’d visit on Sundays — bringing a few of his favorite snacks: candy, soft drinks — and the hottest Taki treats I could find. He graduated with a high school diploma at age 16, and earned his release — only to be returned for a probation violation for being out past curfew — skateboarding. Moved to a transition facility in Phoenix where he had an apartment and was responsible for his own housekeeping, Jonathan continued to prove himself. He worked two jobs and began classes at Carrington College — riding the bus and light rail daily, sometimes walking to his jobs and studies.
We’ve stayed in touch almost every week of this past year, while Jonathan turned 18. He began talking about joining the Army, maybe becoming a firefighter — but he chose a career in medicine, and recently completed the Medical Assisting program at Carrington College. I’ll attend his graduation Aug. 10, and will be there with his family.
I’ve seen Jonathan mature into a caring, polite young man — one who just needed a reliable adult to be there when he needed it; not just for court appearances, but also for those phone calls at night where he simply needed my reassurance that his situation would get the attention it needed, that we would work on his concerns together.
I am so very proud of the fine young man he has become. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s an asset to our society — and he’s so much more now than when we first met in the summer of 2014.
So many young people in the dependency system need someone to place their trust in, an adult they can rely on as an advocate. Please inquire about becoming a CASA volunteer — the time you devote will make a huge difference in a young life, enriching your own as well.
Editor’s note: Chat with CASA staff at their booth at Expedition Church from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday, Aug. 10, at 301 S. Colcord Road in Payson; or call the CASA office at 928-474-7145. Read more online at CASAofGilaCounty.org.