One Youth’s Life-Changing Experience and why Michigan Should Expand CASA to Help More Children in the State’s Care

I was born in 1989, and by 1994, I was in the family court system in Kent County. I have six brothers and sisters. From 1994 to 2002, three of my siblings and myself lived with my grandparents. It was a chaotic and unhealthy time. My father was in prison and my mother was gone, in and out of jail and bad situations. My grandfather passed away in 2002 and my grandmother remarried. At that point, things started going from bad to worse. I was 13 and barely attending school. My older brother was 15, and unmanageable with a criminal background. My younger sisters were struggling to cope, feeling isolated, and lashing out.

Eventually, it was revealed that we had been sexually abused by a family member, and that is when I feel my experience with the welfare system truly began. In 2004, my grandmother and her new husband chose not to cooperate with Child Protective Services to prevent contact with the family member. Taking that position meant they could not keep us in their home. Essentially, they chose to support the family member’s professed innocence. What followed were half a dozen attempts to rehome us – first, with our recently paroled dad; next, with our recently sober mother; then with ill-prepared family members; and even with people from the church. None of these placements were our idea; we were all really scared. After trying and failing to fit into these new places, I ran away for over three months. Living with friends, I was found by the police and taken to juvenile detention. The first day I was there, a little over two years after I was brought into the system, I met Marlene, my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a trained community volunteer appointed by a judge to speak on my behalf.

I was skeptical in the beginning. “Great, here goes another case worker,” I thought. At that point, I had been through more than five or six workers at multiple agencies. My experiences with Marlene and the CASA program were different, though. She stayed with me and my family throughout everything. After switching agencies and failed attempts to reunite with our family, after moving 16 times in two years, after sheltercare, foster care, group homes, mental health assessments, independent living, and aging out, I finally had someone at my side through an overwhelming and complex journey. Once assigned to a case, CASA workers stay with you until your case is closed. What a deep and moving commitment to a child this is, especially for a child whose own family may not even care to see them through such an incredibly challenging time.

Marlene connected me with my siblings, who I had had limited contact with, but desperately missed. As an adult today, I have a strong bond with my siblings and a healthy support system, directly as a result of Marlene’s continuous efforts. In addition to ensuring that I was able to retain a relationship with my family, Marlene gave me a voice. She asked my opinion and help push the courts into placements where I could excel, not just shots in the dark with people my mother randomly suggested, including strangers to me, or later, state-assigned placements. Early on, I had no opportunity to choose a “fictive kin.” Marlene advocated for my well-being by speaking up in court on my behalf and voicing my concerns and opinions.

Marlene was able to speak up for me because she was very involved in my life, understood me, and knew the details of my ordeals. Without her, it would have been hard to move from foster homes to group homes, retain my therapist and doctor information, and keep all the new “families” I met in the loop. To keep going through my history and exposing my emotional wounds to temporary people becomes painful. Thankfully, I didn’t have to repeat these hurtful details to more than one CASA because Marlene never left my side.

She also set a shining example of how I could be a good person and a great parent. My list of real life role models was slim at the time, and Marlene expanded my view on how normal happy and healthy families live, grow and thrive.

There are a lot of programs available to support kids in foster care but access and information can be limited. Having a CASA guaranteed that I was connected to the resources available for me. Marlene connected me to donations for my first apartment, funding for my first car, resources for clothes, help signing up for school and looking for grants. Marlene made sure that I received any help that was available for me to succeed and further my goals. Going off on your own at 18 is scary, but without any family, it is frightening. With CASA and Marlene’s help, I was able to pursue my education, work, and be an example to my younger sisters to achieve success, too.

By continuing to fund CASA, we are giving other kids in foster care the hope and support they need to transcend their struggles and live a good life. CASA supports each child it advocates for on the deepest level, in addition to ensuring that children are connected to other state-funded programs they’re eligible for. Continuous funding and support of CASA is not only the right thing to do to support kids emotionally and mentally, it is also the most logical way to distribute access to all state funded resources available to children in the welfare system.

As a child, Calver spent seven years as a ward of the state, and experienced nearly 20 different placements, beginning in Kent County. Nichole Calver, 30, is today a champion for CASA, speaking publicly at fundraisers and state conferences, and sharing her experiences with elected state leaders and judges. Professionally, she has worked in finance in the auto industry and currently works part time while raising a daughter and staying active in her nieces’ lives.

Nichole Calver spent 14 years in Michigan’s child welfare system, and decided to write about her experiences with Michigan’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program to address the need to continue expanding CASA services to more children living in state care across Michigan. Legislative efforts to expand CASA services into Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in the new 2020 state budget failed in a budget dispute with the Governor’s Office in late 2019.