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Jennifer Mulveny: A Long Journey to a Good Place

A Washington, DC, CASA volunteer shares a little girl's decade-long journey to a safe, loving home.

Jennifer MulveyI decided to become a CASA volunteer because I wanted to take my volunteering up a notch. I had spent nights in homeless shelters, tutored children in afterschool programs, and built houses for Habitat for Humanity. I know this kind of work is vitally important. But I wanted more, a volunteer role that would be more meaningful, where I would build relationships and—perhaps most importantly—see a positive end result.

In the end, I did get a positive result. Mine just took a lot longer than most.

I accepted my first and only CASA case in 2003. Two sisters, five and six years old, had been removed from the home of their abusive and neglectful mother. The elder sister had weathered the storm relatively well. The second, Shawna, was not as lucky.

I was Shawna’s CASA volunteer for nearly 10 years before she was adopted at the age of 16 by a strong, supportive single mother. The experiences Shawna and I shared transcended any expectations I had for a volunteer role. Below is a short chronicle of our decade-long journey.

  • Learning what it really means to be a CASA volunteer. Early on, an ostensibly well-intentioned couple said they wanted to adopt the sisters. I had reservations, based on my gut and my CASA training. What would happen if Shawna was too much for them, would they abandon her and keep her sister? What if they were both placed too quickly? I asked as much in the courtroom. But in my expressions of concern, I was a lone voice, opposed by what felt like a phalanx of social workers. I relented. I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was the first—and the last—time that I rolled over.
  • Spending Christmas Day in the psych ward at Children’s Hospital. It was the end of Shawna’s first attempted adoption. As it turned out, my gut feeling had been accurate; Shawna was acting out in ways the pre-adoptive couple could not manage. They dumped her at Children’s Hospital the week before Christmas, keeping her sister. Shawna went from being in a nice home with new brothers and her sister, going on family vacations, looking forward to Christmas, to being in a psychiatric ward. I think of myself as a generally positive person. I could not believe that people could be so cruel.
  • Accompanying Shawna on her first flight. After the failed adoption we regrouped. How could we get her well, so that she had a chance of getting adopted as she approached her teenage years? Intensive treatment in a skilled behavioral hospital seemed the best way to help Shawna learn needed coping skills and come to terms with the demons of her past. But it was a risk. We were taking her away from where we could physically have her adopted and it would be at least a year, perhaps longer, before she returned. Along with her social worker, we flew to Atlanta. It was her first time on a plane. I was pregnant with my first child.
  • Accompanying Shawna on her second flight. Shawna had spent two years in Georgia, progressing as far as she could in that setting. Her doctors advised moving her to a second hospital, in Florida, where she could continue her treatment. Shawna was 12 years old. I was pregnant with my second child. During her stay at the new hospital I continued my weekly phone calls with Shawna and frequent conversations with her doctors. They would not let her keep her beloved piggy bank at the hospital, so I took it for safe keeping.
  • Moving toward adoption. Shawna returned to the Washington, DC, area, ready to transition to a more independent living situation. Over a year after she had settled into a group home and new school I got a call from children’s services, inviting me to spend the afternoon talking with the woman who would ultimately adopt her. I knew immediately that this time, it was right, but of course I asked pretty tough questions of both the social workers and the pre-adoptive mother after the first failed adoption. We finally made the move. But after a year, Shawna was wavering on signing the adoption papers although she stated she wanted to be adopted. I wondered if it was because her biological mother had recently begun sending her text messages. So I proposed a little role-playing exercise a week before Christmas outside a Chinese restaurant in my car.
    I said, “Pretend I’m your mom. If I called you and said: ‘I’ve got myself together, come live with me, we can make this work.’ What would you say?” She said: “I would tell her that maybe we can be friends some day. But I am staying where I am. I am in a good place now.” Her maturity and clarity of mind, all before she was even officially adopted, was truly amazing to me.

We learned in training that part of being a CASA volunteer is letting go. When the case closes, the status of the relationship depends on the wishes of the child. So far, Shawna has chosen to stay involved with me. She calls and sometimes we text. She has had some tough moments, as has her new mom, but I have worked to maintain a healthy distance. My children, now 6 and 4, know her as my friend who I have helped over the years.

I am not sure where our life journeys will take each of us. But I promised Shawna that wherever she is, and wherever I am, she can always call. I will always be there for her as a friend. And I returned her piggy bank. Full of the change I collected from my laundry machine over 8 years...plus a little extra for a rainy day.


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