Shoals Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) association provided three siblings the gift of a permanent home this holiday season after a three-year battle in the court system. Members of CASA volunteer their time to advocate on behalf of the children’s best interests.

“The CASA organization is designed to advocate for children who are abused, neglected, or involved in court processes where there are allegations of abuse or neglect,” said Shoals CASA director, Andrea Holt. “Our job in those circumstances is to provide the court with an objective investigation of what’s happening in the child’s life currently and in the past. What can be done to ensure they’re protected into the future and have every possible resource provided to them for their success?”

After the juvenile court appoints the children an advocate, volunteers begin meeting with the children to know them and understand what the individual children desire. In addition, they contact case workers, attorneys, teachers, daycare providers, doctors, counselors, foster parents, biological parents, and extended relatives to paint a big picture idea of what the family needs.

“What we can provide for the children is focus,” said Holt. “Attorneys and case workers have substantial caseloads at any given time. However, our CASA volunteers are assigned to one case at a time. So, they have the opportunity to get to know the children and the families that they’re involved with.

CASA advocates remain dedicated to the case until it closes. Brenda Baker worked over 1000 hours on her case to keep the Shoals area siblings together and find them a permanent home.

“This was a hard case with a lot of ups and downs, but the foster parents who eventually adopted the three were just amazing,” Baker stated. “They persevered. They knew in their hearts what was best for these children. Of course, the goal is always to try and keep siblings together.”

Upon retiring from the University of North Alabama in 2014, Baker knew she wanted to do something to make a difference. A CASA board member and friend recommended she consider joining the organization.

“I prayed about it; I just wanted to do something,” Baker said. “And I love children, so I contacted Andrea. I started the training before I retired. I took my first case in 2015, and then I’ve been with them since then.”

The 30-hour training teaches CASA volunteers a variety of skills to use during their cases. The National CASA Pre-Service Volunteer Curriculum Manual highlights gathering information about the needs of the children, facilitating resources to meet those needs, advocating in court using fact-based recommendations, and ensuring any parties involved follow court orders.

“CASA volunteers have to have twelve hours a year in service training,” said Baker. 

“It was pretty intense.   A lot of things that I did not realize go into being a CASA volunteer, but these children’s lives are at stake. So, it is important that we have that training.”

According to the CASA website, 60% of children in the welfare system lack access to a CASA volunteer. Children with a CASA worker are half as likely to languish in foster care or the child welfare system because these volunteers work tirelessly to find safe, permanent homes for children.

“Our volunteers work so hard to do what they feel is right for these kids. It’s tough to see these kids be in situations where they feel as if they have no control. Those are the hard things. But when I get a call from a Chelsey Jones or a Brenda Baker inviting us to attend an adoption ceremony, it’s as if all those challenges just vanish.

We work for kids to be safe, happy, and in a family where they are loved.”

In their eight years as foster parents, Nick and Chelsey Jones have overseen 36 children as placements. In some cases, they provided a safe place for a child to stay the night or weekend.

Other placements were more long-term.

“It has been amazing; everyone been so supportive of our Fostercare journey,” said Chelsey Jones. “When we have foster kids come in, they just take them in. When foster kids leave, they mourn with us and they celebrate that they’re getting to go home.”

The Jones’ started fostering children after losing Chelsey’s mother. They had been married for less than a year, but they had always talked about adoption.

“I felt a strong call from the Lord that we were supposed to be foster parents, and so I brought it up to my husband one day,” said Chelsey. “He said, ‘Oh good. I’m glad because I’ve been feeling the same way.’”

Originally, the Jones’ thought they would adopt an infant. After thought and prayer, they decided they wanted to help by fostering.

“I always encourage people to do foster care because people a lot of times will say, ‘I don’t know how you could do it; I would get too attached. I always tell them, ‘If you’re not getting too attached, then you’re not doing something right.’”

The Jones’ adopted their first son Jason at age four in 2012. The couple fostered him for a year before adopting him. They adopted Daniel in 2016 and finally the three siblings.

“It took a lot of work to be able to get them together. However,everyone advocated for these children, including the biological parents, so that they could stay together,” said Chelsey Jones.

Three years of work, to be exact. The oldest of the trio, now four-year-old Kayleigh, landed with the Jones’ as a foster child in October 2016. They picked up the youngest, now two-year-old Mayson, from the hospital.

“These children had been with this family so long they just thought that was their family. To pull them away would have just been detrimental,” Baker said. “[Chelsey and I] prayed so much together, even the attorney and the [guardian ad litem]. You would not believe the people that were praying for God’s will to be done in this case.”

The middle child, Landon, is 11 months younger than his big sister and 11 months older than his little brother. After more legal battles, the court placed him with the Jones’ as well. An adoption ceremony for the three children took place in October 2019: three years after they began fostering Kayleigh.

“I love Brenda Baker and Chelsey Jones with all my heart. If I keep thinking about them, my eyes are watering and my voice will start cracking,” declared Holt. “They’re the kind of women you just want to hug as soon as you see them. They exude selflessness.”

As for Holt, she has served the organization for over 11 years after beginning as a volunteer herself. Her first day as executive director was in August of 2008.

“I was a single parent of two little girls, and this community supported me as a single parent,” Holt said. “It gave me opportunities to be successful and to allow my children to be successful. This is a great community to raise a family in.”

With their current volunteer roster of 30 to 35, Shoals CASA can only serve about half of the

children in foster care in Lauderdale and Colbert counties.

“Anybody can be an advocate for a child,” Holt said. “Ms. Baker is just one example of a caring community member who decided she wanted to make a difference. You don’t have to be any particular area of education or expertise to be an advocate for a child.”

Shoals CASA has grown since opening in 2002. Anyone interested in volunteering can learn more about their work at www.shoalscasa.org/.

“Call me right now,” Holt said. “There are children waiting.”

*Originally published in the Courier Journal*

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