News and Information from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association

Volunteer Voice

Foster Care Is Not Who You Are—It Is Merely Where You Came From

Frank West
2011 G.F. Bettineski Child Advocate of the Year
CASA of Grant County, Inc.
Marion, IN

My wife Marci and I joke that my selection as volunteer of the year had to be a miracle because it made me speechless. I’m a veteran of the Marine Corps who has witnessed a great deal, including the births of my four children. But getting that phone call literally caused me to shake. I do not believe that my actions were extraordinary compared to other volunteers. But I truly appreciate the honor.

I had a very harsh childhood. When I went through my initial interview to become a volunteer, they asked me, “Have you ever been exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect?” I said “Yes.” They said, “Well, which one?” And I said, “All of them.” I was never in the child welfare system, but I should have been.

I survived that childhood and went on to be blessed with a good family and career. Being a volunteer allows me to show young people that you really can choose a path different from those you’ve been exposed to. For the most part, we’re products of our environment and of our DNA. Unless we choose to make some drastic choices, there’s a good chance we’ll repeat the patterns of our parents and grandparents. But the cycle can be broken.

As a Marine, I fought so someone else could have a better way of life. As a CASA volunteer, I have the same mission. We scatter seeds of hope. A lot of these kids are surrounded by negative voices. They hear that they’ll never turn out to be anything. But we can show children that they can become more than what is spoken about them. For example, I was told in high school that I wasn’t college material. But I used my GI Bill benefits and squeezed four years into six years part time, ending up with a 3.8 GPA. So I tell young people, “Foster care is not who you are, it’s merely where you came from.”

The teenager I’m serving as a CASA volunteer—let’s call her Lucy—is a bright girl. But one of the first things she said to me was, “I think I’m mentally retarded.” I asked her why she thought that. “Because my grades are poor.” She was a senior but had twice failed the test necessary for graduation. So I petitioned the court, and we got a full cognitive workup done. It proved what I thought—she’s of solidly average intelligence.

After we did the testing, the school stated that Lucy didn’t score low enough to qualify for special education. But they gave her full advantage of the resource room. We found that if she took her history test on her own, she scored 40%; but when it was read to her, she scored 80%. So the school allowed her to have her tests read to her from then on. This past spring, she graduated on time. It would not have happened without a CASA volunteer on the case.

How do I describe CASA work to people who don’t know about it? I explain that kids find themselves in a situation that they didn’t put themselves in. Someone has not done their job taking care of them. The state has gotten involved and removed the children from the harmful situation, which is the right thing to do. Parents, social workers and attorneys can all speak for themselves, but the child may not have a voice in court—someone who speaks to their best interests. As a CASA volunteer, you get to know the children and become that voice.

I usually ask potential volunteers, “Have you ever thought about being a foster parent?” Most will usually say yes. Then I explain that while that level of commitment may not be feasible for you or your family, you can be a CASA volunteer. You can do many of the same things but without having the children under your roof. It’s not a full-time job—it’s something you can do in a few hours a month as a volunteer and make an impact. All you need is to have a good heart and to do your work with diligence.

My wonderful, loving wife and our four children make possible my success as a volunteer by sacrificing some time with me. But I feel comfortable because they understand it’s to help someone else have a better life. Young people are our future, and our dreams for a better tomorrow rest in their hands.

Frank West


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