CASA director reaches out, hopes to change livesPublished 4:17pm Thursday, June 17, 2010
By JOHN EBY
CASSOPOLIS – Like many other such organizations, CASA could use a few good men.
Marv Middleton, who became a Court-Appointed Special Advocate five years ago, did so through his church.
An engineering manager for a company in Three Rivers who retired in 1996, Middleton also operated a woodworking business with partners for five years after that.
He is one of only three men among 20 volunteers.
When CASA Director James Ward spoke at Dowagiac Rotary Club last June, he wanted more diverse volunteers.
“I came here with a business background and recruited and trained a lot of sales people over a period of years – almost all men. It’s been harder than I thought it would be. We desperately need more men as we get into cases that are delinquencies as well as abuse and neglect. The child gets to be 15 or 16 in foster care and gets in trouble, then it becomes a dual case which requires different skill sets. The ones so far are boys and you’re not going to put a 60-year-old lady on that case,” Ward said recently.
“I’m out speaking and doing more faith-based presentations than in the past. I met with ACTION, a coalition of 16 pastors in Dowagiac. I’m doing a men’s group from Our Lady of the Lake (Catholic Church in Edwardsburg) in a couple of weeks” and a Niles church with a Saturday morning men’s group,” Ward said.
“I’d been involved with a young man our church tried to help who’d gotten into drugs. We tried to befriend him. His stepfather kicked him out of the house. It seemed like we were making progress, but it turned out we were just being enablers, providing a safe haven for him,” Middleton recalled recently. “He lied to us and used drugs whenever it was convenient. It took some time to discover that, but when we did, we found out he was canvassing different church members for money.”
It occurred to Middleton “we need to catch them and work with them before they’re 20 or 21 years old. Their personalities are so formed by that age, I don’t want to say it’s hopeless, but I’ve seen him a few times and he’s still sort of knocking around and he’s been in jail.”
CASA fit Middleton’s bill of working with more impressionable children ages 5 to 10.
“I’d heard of the organization,” he said, “so I asked a friend at church who’d gotten into CASA and she explained to me what’s involved. I made an application.
“That was the turning point for me, the hopelessness of trying to ‘save’ someone older who has their own mind you can’t change.”
Middleton said his second case with a 7-year-old boy proved “the most significant for me. He’d been in a number of foster homes. The first time I saw him, he was curled up in a fetal position and completely defensive. He’d been emotionally abused to where he didn’t have any idea what to expect.
“When I came, almost the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Are you with the police?’ He was used to seeing that circumstance with his parents. I didn’t say anything about court or as complicated as that, I said, ‘I’m just a person interested in being your friend.’”
To establish a friendly relationship, Marv and the boy played cards.
“I let him beat me at Crazy Eights,” Middleton said, “but pretty soon he got good enough that I didn’t need to let him beat me anymore.
“You’re not supposed to think of a CASA as a mentor. We’re not Big Brothers/Big Sisters, but you have to establish a relationship with your kids, which takes time. You have to find out what their interests are and build hope.”
With this young boy, “He told me he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to live that long. ‘I don’t see any future.’ ”
Middleton learned the boy loved animals. He didn’t see him as a candidate for veterinary school, but thought he might have potential to work as a technician or for a zoo.
“We went to lots of animal places,” he said. “He also loved to fish. The odds for that age group, 7 to 9, to be adopted is miserable, only 11 percent. Most adoptions are very young babies or toddlers. They want them fresh, where this boy already had a personality, and it wasn’t always pleasant.”
Nevertheless, a family decided to adopt him after reading his profile after raising three daughters of their own.
Middleton was “amazed” they came to a decision like that without even seeing a photo of the boy, so he showed them one he carried in his wallet. His red hair further cemented the attraction for the family of Irish heritage.
“Seeing that experience was very gratifying,” Middleton said. “The father was a fishing nut and a hunter and their home had stuffed animals all over. It was perfect.”
CASA volunteers are divided about equally between people who work and retirees and range in age from mid-20s to an 82-year-old who retired from the program last summer.