Sandra McDermott

Recently at CASA of Tarrant County, a theme has arisen: face your challenges head on. As the number of cases requiring CASAs has increased, so has the need for the agency to step up to the plate and find ways to serve the abused and neglected children in the community. The irony is not lost on CASA staff that while our agency has the ability to turn down challenges as needed, the children served by our agency do not have the same luxury.

From a volunteer perspective, we recognize that our advocates have no obligation to take on challenges that seem too hard, too heavy, or too demanding. Even so, we see examples every single day of advocates stepping forward to face challenges head on out of sheer compassion for the population of children that we serve. That brings us to Sandra McDermott.

After 25 years at Cooks Children’s Medical Center, many healthcare professionals would take the opportunity to retire from the fast-paced, often heartbreaking profession of serving children in dire need. That wasn’t the case for McDermott, a CASA volunteer for Tarrant County since 2013.

Additionally, she recently became a drug court advocate, meaning that she is concurrently serving on her third and fourth cases with CASA. McDermott is an advocate described by her casework supervisor, April Bolden, as a champion.

“Sandra goes above and beyond,” Bolden said. “She stays in contact with the kids no matter what, she visits whenever she’s needed, and she really embodies the mission of CASA.”

After taking on two cases in a row that she felt were straightforward enough to show her the ropes of advocacy, she has now undertaken one of the most difficult cases CASA of Tarrant County is currently facing. “When I took my first two cases, I shied away from the complicated ones since I didn’t have the capacity,” McDermott said. “When I retired, I came back and signed up for a case that had been without a CASA for months, and it’s very complicated and difficult. At the case drive last year, I told myself I would take the toughest case they had, and I did.”

McDermott recognizes the importance of taking on challenges as soon as a person is able. “This is what standing up for kids looks like; it’s taking the harder road,” McDermott said. “If you want to stand up for kids, you testify. If you have the capacity to take a tough case, you take it. Fighting for kids means you push yourself to do whatever you can for them. Those who can, should.”

McDermott says that her success is amplified by those supporting her casework. “I’ve been blessed with two really great CPS caseworkers – mine have been really outstanding,” McDermott said. “I’ve also been blessed to have [former and current Casework Supervisors] Jill and April.”

McDermott’s former Casework Supervisor, Jill Stutts, who currently serves as one of the CASA Program Team Leads, hailed McDermott’s work over the last three years. “[Sandra] always gives the kids a backup plan,” Stutts said. “She’s very practical and thoughtful. When she talks to her kids, she keeps them focused on the positive things and gives them tools to manage the problems they’re facing.”

Children served by CASA are often facing a tumultuous, often unstable road while they are in the state’s care due to the nature of the transition. McDermott’s strategic way of facing problems in her casework is often a lifeline for these children who need a sense of stability.

“When you take a case, you’re working with kids in a very difficult time,” McDermott said. “The kids are scared, everyone in the family is in disarray, and you have the difficult but necessary job to help these kids find a state of normal.” McDermott’s first two cases both resulted in reunifications, something CASA hopes to advocate for in all cases.

“It’s really satisfying to feel like you made a difference for a family and to know that they’re still doing well,” McDermott said. “I don’t do this for myself. I’m here to provide service to a population that is so very underserved.”

McDermott explained that she believes CASA is vital in the child welfare system. “I think CASA fills a need that would otherwise not be met,” McDermott said. “It breaks my heart that there are children without CASAs.”

When it comes to McDermott’s longevity with CASA of Tarrant County, McDermott’s Casework Supervisor is optimistic. “I think Sandra will be with us for a very long time,” Bolden said.

Nicole Clark

Spring is in the air, and so is a wave of transition and change. We all adjust ourselves to the warmer weather and face looming pre-summer deadlines, but on the whole, transition is a calm, expected part of life. Not so lucky are the many children in our own county who face countless uncontrollable transitions every day, from being shuffled between schools to being shuffled between homes. The level of uncertainty these children face is unimaginable for most of us, but for CASA advocate Nicole Clark, 31, it is a reality she sees in her casework regularly.

“Things get misplaced in the many transitions,” Clark said of children in foster care who she serves as a CASA.

“In school, they deal with homework, then there’s STARR testing coming up, and then there are medical concerns like keeping up with glasses.”

Often-times children in care are facing transitions that keep them from succeeding in school. Clark explained the importance of recognizing the needs of children in care that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

“Child Protective Services does everything they can, but having a CASA means someone is paying attention to those children on an individual level.”

CASA provides an important opportunity for these children: nearly one on one attention throughout their entire time removed from their homes. When a child on one of her two cases celebrated a birthday recently, Clark mentioned how valuable CASA was to the child. Along with another advocate assigned to the case, Clark made sure that the birthday was personalized and special to the child.

 “[The child] was just ecstatic to get gifts from people who really knew [the child],” Clark said. “Most of the time if a child in care gets a birthday present, it’s something out of a grab bag, but we were able to give [the child] something special and personal.”

Clark’s Casework Supervisor, Amanda Spharler, considers Clark a model advocate at CASA.

“Nicole is a dynamo,” Spharler said. “She never stops asking what she could do to improve the child’s situation, and then takes action to make it happen.”

Being a great advocate means more than being able to build a great rapport with the child. In regards to Clark’s role as an advocate in court, Spharler reiterated that Clark has been an incredibly effective volunteer with CASA throughout both of the cases she has taken thus far.

“Nicole has great instincts when considering the best interest of the child, and although she isn’t afraid to speak her mind, she is very thoughtful about remaining neutral instead of siding with the adult parties in the case,” Spharler said. “She never forgets she is there for the child.”

While some advocates are unable to continue to help children following the closure of a case, Clark has taken the initiative to identify how she can continue to help the children she served in her last case. Clark maintains a prominent role as an advocate for the children who need her.

“She has visited schools, talked to counselors, helped her kids explore college options, and has even taken a teen to tour colleges after she was no longer the CASA on the case,” Spharler said,

While clear to outsiders that Clark is a standout volunteer, Clark herself maintains that her role as an advocate comes from a place of understanding her own advantages in life.

“I look at my life and my own family and I realize that we’re so blessed,” Clark said. “It’s not a child’s fault that he or she is in this situation.”

The children served by CASA face uncertainty and possibly stressful transitions during their time in care, but CASA’s advocates, like Clark, provide a single constant upon which these children can always rely.

“Every child needs someone looking out for them,” Clark said. “That’s why I do this.”