Here’s a quick glimpse into the psyche of Elkhorn’s Phil Brown: After he completed his 30 hours of training to become a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children, he volunteered to take on five cases.
“They still joke about that. Nobody has five cases,” Brown says.
One is typical. Brown and his supervisor at CASA for Douglas County settled on two cases – one involving an 8-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother, the other a 7-year-old boy with profound special needs, the result of myotonic dystrophy. Wheelchair-bound, he has been in foster care for three years.
“I really think we’re helping this child,” Brown says. “We were in court (recently) and he really liked the court clerk. … He gave her a high-five. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him do that.”
A 40-year veteran of the railroad repair industry, Brown started seeking volunteer opportunities after retiring three years ago. “It’s like going from 100 to zero overnight. I needed more to do.”
A railroad buddy told him about CASA for Douglas County, a 20-year-old outreach supported, in part, by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. Brown went home, browsed the website and filled out the application. He was sworn in as a CASA in February.
Like all CASA volunteers, he visits the children he serves at least once a month in their foster homes and checks in with their teachers.
“I started going to one child’s school and discovered that her foster parents weren’t getting her to school regularly. She was late or missing 75 percent of the time. We turned that around,” Brown says. “That was a good feeling.”
CASAs also participate in placement review hearings and attend monthly team meetings that include case workers, guardian ad litems, biological parents and their attorneys.
“The pinnacle of the CASA’s advocacy is writing up a court report that is submitted to the judge at a review hearing. (It addresses) how the child’s foster care placement, education and mental and physical health are going,” says Alexander Cayetano, CASA for Douglas County’s director of volunteer and community engagement.
CASAs also make recommendations about the child’s placement and any additional service needs like tutoring or mentoring. They agree to stay with a case until it is closed (when the child is reunited with his or her birth parents or adopted).
Brown is known around the local CASA office for going above and beyond. When the girl he advocates for turned 8 recently, he arrived at her home with a gift — a book.
“I push the books,” he says. “We have a saying around our house: First you learn to read, then you read to learn.”
He brings the kids baskets on Easter and takes pictures of them in costume on Halloween.
How’s this for another glimpse into his psyche: When the foster mother of the child with special needs mentioned he could benefit from a safe play area in the home, Brown engaged the Make-A-Wish Foundation to convert a section of the basement.
“It’s an enclosed area that has a padded floor, padded walls, soft play shapes and an interactive Promethean Board,” he says of the project.
Brown he didn’t know about CASA before that lunch with his railroad friend. Now, the grandfather of two says he would be lost without it: “I’m glad to be doing it. … CASA gives you a chance to be a hero for a child. You’re going to get more than you give.”
“Faces of Fearless” is a storytelling series in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s “Live Fearless” campaign celebrating people living their very best lives and inspiring others to do the same. Read the series on omaha.com/blue-cross