Though volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) can be emotionally draining, positive outcomes provide "the strength" to carry on, because those are the moments "you realize it's worth it," said Janet Lovelady.
Her first case involved a brother and sister, the latter of whom was "really shy, but the foster mother would take them fishing, to the zoo, things they didn't experience previously, and I watched that little girl, who was like a rose," said Lovelady, who retired last month after 18 years as a CASA. "Because she was loved, she felt safe, and she began to bloom," even becoming a student government officer at her school.
"When you see the success stories, you feel a peace," she added. "That they're in a safe environment makes you feel good."
In Whitfield and Murray counties, the Family Support Council's CASA volunteers become "that person" for children removed from their homes and deemed deprived due to abuse and/or neglect, according to Tracy Harmon, CASA's volunteer outreach coordinator. Assigned to cases by judges, CASA volunteers establish bonds with children but also build relationships with biological parents and foster families, all in an attempt to decide what is in the best interest of the child before delivering recommendations to the court.
Lovelady had been approached by Connie Blaylock, who was then the Juvenile Court judge, about CASA, and she considered the lamentable fact that "there are some children who have no one to go to bat for them, to speak on their behalf," she said. "Children need a voice, and that was a moment of light and understanding for me." CASA was under Juvenile Court before moving to its current home as part of the Family Support Council.
Volunteering as a CASA proved a learning experience for Lovelady, as "some of the situations kids find themselves in can be shocking; it can be heartbreaking, and, honestly, it can make you mad," she said. "It made me appreciate my own parents, how they loved me and raised me."
That discovery is "something many of our CASA volunteers talk about, that they didn't know what's happening in our community with parents and children," said Chelsea DeWaters, manager for the CASA program. "We can live next to people and have no idea what they're going through."
Lovelady "has effectively handled some of the program’s most difficult cases, including cases of high-need, medically-fragile children, and children who have suffered egregious sexual and physical abuse," DeWaters said. "She is persistent, diligent in her investigations, treats everyone with respect, is a good listener, and is thorough and compassionate, but firm."
Lovelady, who was this community's longest-serving CASA, said she attempted to "talk to everyone involved in a case, (from) teachers and medical professionals to relatives and friends, (because) we need information."
Her first call was typically to the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) staff member or members on a case, and "my interactions with DFCS have always been very positive," she said. "I always get the information I need in a timely manner, and they're quick to respond to calls and emails."
Lovelady "has taken a stand for and behind families who are working to regain custody of their children and put their lives back together, and has been an instrumental support in reunifying families," even though some of her cases continued for years, DeWaters said. "Working on cases that last for several years requires patience, perseverance and lots of hope, even in the face of repeated disappointments for children and their families, or setbacks for the system."
She has worked cases in both Murray and Whitfield counties, but the majority of her time has been spent in the latter, and most of her cases lasted 24-30 months, although a few stretched four or five years, Lovelady said. "Part of having a heart for children is staying involved."
Lovelady, who received a 2020 President's Volunteer Service Award from the United Way of Northwest Georgia, has been "a constant" in the lives of the children she's served, DeWaters said. She "has demonstrated great perseverance through her work as a CASA, as well as great perceptiveness, patience, and an ability to work within the system, even when the system is messy and imperfect, and things do not go the way the individuals involved hope."
Additionally, her "personal centeredness" not only allowed her to consider all points of view and have the utmost confidence in her decisions, but the calmness that flowed from her equanimity proved "very comfortable for children," DeWaters said. "The future is uncertain for these children, but she's a stabilizing force."
Lovelady allowed herself breaks after protracted, draining cases to "renew and refresh," she said. "Every CASA has their own way of dealing with the stress, and that was mine."
She appreciated opportunities to "get fresh perspective and talk it out" with superiors and co-workers like DeWaters, Diane Green and Sandy Martin-Ales, she said. "It helps to verbally weigh the pros and cons."
Even better was her discourse with God through prayer, she said.
"It's good to know I can ask the Lord for help, and my relationship with Christ has been a firm foundation."
She also had a "bedrock of family support," she said. "My husband and son have been very encouraging, and my late mother thought this was special work."
During her 18 years, "the structure of the CASA program has matured, going from infant to adult, so to speak," Lovelady said. Shifting to the Family Support Council "gave us a little more support and a greater awareness of services available to CASA staff and to children."
Lovelady completed facilitator training, and she assisted the former program director in training new volunteers at a time when the program was "seriously understaffed," DeWaters said. "She participates in ongoing in-service opportunities, has served as a leader and mentor to new CASAs, publicized CASA through participation in a video about CASA and a newspaper series featuring the program, (and) always (took) an active role in sharing the power of what a CASA volunteer can accomplish."
The next CASA volunteer training begins March 1. Anyone interested in learning more about the opportunity can contact Harmon at (706) 428-7931 or email@example.com.
"I'd love to see more people get involved with CASA, because there's a need, and we have a lot of people in this community who would be good" at it, Lovelady said. "You need to ask yourself 'Can I help, and do I want to help?'"