We all care about the safety of our kids, but there are some people who go a step further to protect the most vulnerable children in our community— those who’ve been abused or neglected and are entrusted to the foster care system. Tricia Clifton, a former foster kid herself and the new executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Collin County, leads a team of volunteers who shepherd kids through the court process and advocate for their best interests. She talked to us about her mission and what it takes to fight the county’s rising number of child abuse cases.
You joined CASA of Collin County earlier this year. How has the transformation been and what does it mean for CASA?
It’s a sharp learning curve to enter the world of court systems with attorneys, judges, lawyers, Child Protective Services and everything else in place to protect the child. But the only option is to learn quickly. We’re seeing the number of cases spiraling upwards. In the past two years, the staff alone has doubled in size in order to meet the needs of the community.
What inspired you to take on the role?
I have a degree in professional counseling psychology, so I’ve always been in the realm of serving at-risk and underserved children. I was in the foster system until I was officially adopted when I was a little over 2 years old, and that experience speaks so much to my heart. If the right people weren’t there for me at the right time, my life could be completely different. It’s important for me to be able to provide a foundation so that my staff can go out and provide those services to children who are the most at-risk and let them be who they are and who they are supposed to be.
How does CASA serve children in Collin County?
We come into the picture after a child has been removed from the home, so we deal with the worst of the worst abuse cases. These children have been through the trauma of abuse and neglect, not to mention the trauma of being taken out of the home. It’s our goal to create some kind of normalcy for that child. By being an advocate, we’re the one true constant in that child’s life throughout that court process. We’re there for the kids however we can be, whether it’s using our voices to speak for them or providing a new toy and school supplies. Some children, when they are removed from their homes, leave with nothing. We want to be able to acknowledge and reward their milestones and accomplishments, because they deserve it.
Can you describe a typical volunteer experience?
The experience of being an advocate is on a literal case-by-case basis. There is no one experience because every child’s situation and needs are different. I can say that our volunteers are trained in the same way: extensively. There is 30 hours of intensive training, plus a required 12 hours every year of continued community learning and development. And we’re constantly checking in on our volunteers. We see children on life support; these are life and death situations. Not only do we need to protect those children, we need to protect our volunteers because we wouldn’t be able to do it without them.
What do you wish people knew about working with CASA and at-risk children?
It’s easy to come in and think, “I’m going to help this child, I’m going to change the world.” More often than not, cases are smooth sailing for months and then some wrench is thrown. It can be hard if a case goes in a direction that you don’t want it go to. But the law has to be upheld. It’s hard—there’s no getting around that. One of the things that we screen in our volunteers is bias, because the state of Texas, including us, believes in reunification. If it is at all possible for a child to return home to a safe and loving environment, then that’s where the child needs to be. Sometimes it can be a drug issue, but sometimes the parent never got the support or resources that they needed and they could be the perfect parent with just a little help. We also screen out biases for misconceptions like poor equals abuse or that abuse can’t happen in affluent families.
How can people get involved in CASA and help youth in their community?
Our volunteers are all from Collin County. If someone reaches out and they’re closer to another county, we redirect them to other chapters of CASA that need help. We’re lucky enough to say that we serve 100 percent of our children, but unfortunately, counties like Dallas can’t serve 100 percent because of the volume of cases. One way or another, we find a use for all donations—if we can’t accept an item, we will direct donors to other CASAs or nearby organizations like the Children’s Advocacy Center and the Samaritan Inn. We’re very close to our community partners because we know it takes a village. But any little bit helps. Even something as simple as picking up a gift card when you’re at a grocery store or shopping online. There is a little girl in my neighborhood who set up a free lemonade stand and was taking tips, which she gave to me for the kids at CASA. How incredible is that, to be 6 years old and have a heart that big?