child abuse

Redeeming her own past by training CASAs

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Continuing our series about the CASA program, today’s post is about one woman who trains CASAs. As part of their commitment, CASAs agree to pursue continuing education and this woman teaches a class that applies toward that. You can read our other posts about being a CASA here and here

“I am a survivor of the child pornography industry.”

This is how Elizabeth “Libby” Buchanan introduces herself to the audiences she teaches as a CASA trainer. And it’s as difficult to hear as it is to say. She has learned her students must be forewarned about her intro, because if they aren’t, they won’t hear anything she says for the next five minutes. And they need to be tuned in for every minute of her presentation. Even though she herself was never in the foster care system, because of her traumatic childhood, she has valuable insights into the feelings of the children these volunteers will be serving.

When Libby first heard about the CASA program, she knew she wanted to get involved, but she also knew she wouldn’t be able to handle being in courtrooms with perpetrators of violence and neglect against children. It would be too painful, bring back too many memories. CASAs are required as part of their commitment to get annual training, so Libby’s husband suggested she teach a class about helping CASAs understand where the kids in the system are coming from, as part of that continuing education. A friend who worked as a CASA approached her manager, who loved the idea, and Libby stepped into the classroom.

Libby organizes her presentation around helping CASAs understand how the children they’ll be working with are processing their situations. Most CASAs are not alumni of the foster care system. And since they are volunteering their services on behalf of these children, they expect gratitude. “I remind them that these kids are not going to be grateful for their assistance.” They’ve been through so much trauma, been disappointed by so many adults in their lives. A CASA is just one more stranger who gets a say in that child’s life. But, while the youngster may not ever appreciate a CASAs services, that CASA is absolutely essential. He may well be the only consistent adult in that child’s life.

She teaches the CASAs about normalizing, explaining that kids coming from abusive homes need to have “normal” redefined, because they see their abuse and neglect as normal. Often, they’ve never known anything else. They don’t realize their situation is abnormal until they’re taken out of it. “That’s hard for CASAs to understand,” Libby says, noting that children’s desire to return to an abusive situation is similar to the Stockholm Syndrome—an attitude as baffling to caseworkers and others charged with the care of the child as the syndrome is to the public. But the parent-child connection is a powerful one. And often, the child blames himself for being taken away.

She also explains that CASAs must set expectations for proper behavior and grooming for situations like appearing before a judge. And they must tell the child exactly what’s going to happen, what the child can expect. “Unpredictability is the scariest thing in these kids lives,” Libby relates. And often, they’re jerked around from one place to another without any explanation, which makes them feel confused and frightened, and adds to an already traumatic situation.

Another key component of her presentation is stressing the importance of keeping siblings together. Children have already been removed from their parents; their siblings are their last connection to the identity they know. Take away these remaining kin, and they feel utterly alone and abandoned. Libby acknowledges that it’s not always possible to keep siblings together, but she wants CASAs to know that this should be a top priority.

Because Libby speaks out of her experience, teaching is difficult. In fact, at first, she was terrified. “I made lots of people cry because it was so hard and they could tell.” But over time, she has found teaching redemptive. “I enjoy being a help to those who will be so helpful to [the children] assigned to them.”

Libby Buchanan is a Christian writer, teacher, speaker, mother and wife. You can read more about her at her website, libbybuchanan.com

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