At the end of a troubling day, going home ideally feels safe, secure and like the chance for an emotional reset. Whether we’ve had a tough time at the office, an unpleasant conversation with friends or just aren’t feeling it, most of us can curl up in our personal space, in the company of cherished loved ones, and soon feel better. It’s something that, frankly, every person deserves — to feel safe at home, both literally and figuratively, whether we’re young or old. But the sad truth is that right here in our own state, a startling number of children have no such privileges. For them, “home” is a moving target – and those feelings of safety and support are transient, as is the promise of four protective walls and a roof. CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, of Jefferson County makes all the difference between these children learning, thriving and realizing their dreams and feeling lost, scared and without hope.
For Liz Huntley, a former foster child who is now a published author, advocate, speaker and attorney, the road could have forked in either direction in her early years, as it can for many children. Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Liz’s parents were both drug dealers, and her mother committed suicide when she was just 5 years old. Because her father was “in and out of jail,” Liz started living with her paternal grandmother in Chilton County – an environment, unfortunately, that proved highly abusive. “We lived in Clanton in the projects,” she shared. “Her son abused me, and another was violent — that’s what led to court involvement. A neighbor saw the extreme domestic violence and contacted law enforcement.”
There was no CASA to advocate for Liz at that time, but she was assigned a guardian ad litem – a legal professional to advocate for a child’s case in court — and he ended up being one of her greatest champions, mentors and friends: Attorney John Hollis Jackson. “I later ended up being his son’s camp counselor at YMCA, and they were supportive when I went to law school, too. He’s been my advocate on multiple occasions,” she said. “Just last year he retired from law. He is a longtime friend.”
Liz was grateful for her own guardian ad litem’s advocacy, and she ended up paying it forward years later, becoming an attorney and advocate herself. Prior to moving to Birmingham, she practiced independently as an attorney in Chilton County, where she was also a guardian ad litem for eight years. “It came full circle for me,” she mused. “I was once the child who needed a guardian ad litem, and now I was one, too. Having that background and those personal experiences gave me a lens that is hard to explain in terms of where kids are in these situations and how they are feeling.”
Because she went through many of the same experiences that so many other abused children go through, Liz knows firsthand how one caring adult does more than just “keep ducks in a row” and ensure legal processes go smoothly; he or she demonstrates to the child that adults can be kind, considerate and encouraging. “A child court advocate is so much more than someone to make sure the boxes are checked. You’re advocating for the quality of life for that child,” she said. “You think about what you would want for your own child and what the optimal circumstances would be.”
Leilany Noel, program coordinator for CASA of Jefferson County, echoed Liz’s statements that a caring advocate can turn things around. At her current post since January 2020, Leilany hasn’t let COVID-19 stop CASA from attending to each child’s needs, even outside of the courtroom. Though as you read this article, things are largely “back to normal,” none of the children had to go through the pandemic without the quality time with the advocates they’d come to depend on.
“We’d do social distance visits. I’d sit on the grass with the kid on the porch; we’d use sidewalk chalk; I'd let them draw; we’d talk. DHR had stopped visiting [during the quarantine], so we were probably the only people who laid eyes on some of those kids,” she noted.
But visiting kids at home, whether outdoors or in, is, according to Liz, a newer development of the advocate-child relationship. When she was a kid herself it was different – in both the idea of every kid needing an advocate and in how involved advocates were. “My interactions with John Hollis Jackson were only during court time,” she said. “Now, the advocates are more involved. They do home visits with the child and all these additional touches so when they make a recommendation to the court, it’s really informed.”
Liz tells her unique and personal story in her memoir, “More Than a Bird,” which she wrote in a way that even middle school kids can understand and glean inspiration from. The book reiterates the idea that a child can have a troublesome upbringing and still grow up to achieve his or her dreams — a resounding message for both kids and advocates.
“I wanted them to know they can have a better quality of life,” she said. “Many times, we try to fix it for kids, but we can’t fix it — but even if we can’t, what can we do to help them be resilient? That’s why these advocates are so important. It helps a kid live through.”
And having someone listen to the smaller things? That’s what matters the most of all at times, pointed out Leilany, who said that kids will ask them to share personal tidbits and triumphs with the judge in court. These personal tidbits and triumphs, after all, make up who the child is – and the advocate being entrusted with the information is precious indeed. “The other day a kid said, ‘Tell the judge I like the color blue, and I can count to 50,’ she recalled, with feeling. “It’s little things like that that make them feel important and like they have some stability. It makes them feel heard and seen.”
Leilany shared that anyone reading this article who feels called to be a CASA advocate can and should do so – and you do not have to be an attorney. From teachers to stay-at-home parents to therapists and even real estate agents, any kind of background is welcome, as long as you have a spirit to give back and a heart that loves children. According to Leilany, about 200 cases were in the works at press time, and, with just 50 or 60 volunteers, “the ratio is off.” Training and learning the protocols is offered to each advocate upfront, and for those who are shorter on time, donations are also welcome and appreciated. “Donations go to various things,” she said. “We have books we bring to the kids, we give cards or things for Christmas and birthdays — or a donation can buy a pair of sneakers. Different things come up.”
“I truly believe in the quote, “Every child is one advocate away from being a successful adult,” added Liz. “I try to show adults that their level of advocacy — whether a season or a moment in time — is so critically important to the success of that child and giving that child hope. People wonder if they can make a difference. If they can carve out the time, it is absolutely worth it. I can’t tell you the value — and I say all this from the eyes of a child and from the eyes of an advocate. These children are there because the adults in their lives have failed them. So to have that caring adult to look out for them and have their best interest at heart? You never forget that.”
Inspired? Visit https://casaofjeffersoncounty.org/get-involved/#volunteer.