Back about 20 years ago when she was president of the Junior League of Princeton, Kathy Russo happened to come across an article in a League newsletter about Court Appointed Special Advocates, better known as CASA. A longtime volunteer for various causes, she was touched by what she read about this organization dedicated to helping children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. She filed it away in her head.
Fast forward a decade or so to when Ms. Russo was working at a gift shop in Princeton Shopping Center. The shop closed, and she found herself with time on her hands. “I said to myself, ‘Okay. It’s time,’” she recalled this week. After some 30 hours of training at CASA, she began working as a volunteer advocate. She has never looked back.
For Ms. Russo’s work on behalf of her young clients over the past seven years, she was recognized last April by the Cherish the Children Foundation with its Program Award. The honor goes to a Mercer County volunteer “who has consistently shown tremendous character by taking an active interest in the well-being of the children in our community,” the proclamation reads. It goes on to describe Ms. Russo as “an exemplary role model for how dedicated advocates can change the lives of children in their care.”
All of these accolades are a bit embarrassing to Ms. Russo, who prefers to focus on getting the word out to others who may want to volunteer for the organization. She has spent many hours assisting children in Newark, Trenton, Camden, areas she knows some might be reluctant to visit. “You just have to be smart about it,” she said. “You can do this very safely. You can visit children in schools. They are put into safe homes. You don’t have to go into unsafe neighborhoods to be an advocate. And you can advocate while traveling, or working, because of technology.”
A longtime Princeton resident who is the mother of two boys and stepmother of two more, Ms. Russo is married to local orthodontist. Dr. Louis Russo. “He has been very supportive,” she said of her husband. “He encourages me to keep doing this. He knows how important it is.”
It was the hands-on approach of being a CASA advocate that appealed to Ms. Russo when she began her training. “I was tired of fundraising,” she said. “This was something different.” After a security check, she was assigned her first case. It was a challenge from the start that continued to grow.
“Usually, you get one or two kids and the case takes about 18 months,” she said. “I ended up with seven, and it took five years. But that’s really unusual.”
The children in Ms. Russo’s charge came from the same family, and ranged from ages four to 13. She started out with three of them, but kept adding to her caseload as she learned there were more members of the family who had been placed in different foster homes. Her efforts on their behalf included working with the biological parents, foster parents, teachers, a case worker, and the judge in charge of deciding their fates.
“You’re talking to everyone,” she said. “In a perfect world, you connect the dots and try to make a safety net. That’s the goal. But you are also considered the eyes and ears of the judge, and that’s very important.”
Ms. Russo tears up a bit when asked about the children themselves. “Visiting them was wonderful,” she said. “They feel like they have someone. They feel protected. We’re the only constant for them. I promise them that I’ll always find them in 48 hours [when they are moved around]. One little boy was worried about what was going to happen to him, and his brother said to him, “‘Don’t worry. Miss Kathy’ll find you. She always does.’”
Children are removed from their homes for reasons that include neglect, abuse, or problems their parents might be having. Some are reunited with their families after spending time in a foster home. If their families are unable to care for them, parental rights are terminated and sometimes they’re adopted. “However, all the kids love their biological parents and just want to go home,” Ms. Russo said.
CASA of Mercer and Burlington Counties is part of a national network established in 1977 by a Seattle Superior Court Judge concerned about trying to make decisions on behalf of neglected children without enough information. He came up with the idea of appointing community volunteers to investigate the cases, make recommendations, and speak up for the children in court. What began with 50 volunteers has grown to include programs all over the country that have helped more than two million children find safe homes, according to the CASA website.
As the children are repeatedly uprooted, it is their advocates who can keep them grounded. “I’m one of the few people they can talk to about where they’ve been,” Ms. Russo said. “I know their history. They enjoy sharing that history with me. There can be constant changes for the child, but you’re the historian for them.”
It is the small things that those in intact families take for granted that often make a child feel happy and safe, Ms. Russo said. “I asked one little boy what he wanted for his birthday. He said he wanted a cake with his name on it. It was such a little thing, but it was so important to him.”
Advocates are not permitted to give anything to the children. “You can get other agencies to do that. As an advocate, you’re just giving of yourself and your time,” Ms. Russo said. “You get a tremendous amount of support from the CASA staff and you get a tremendous amount of respect from the judge. There are people willing to help you. You just have to be a detective and find out who they are.”
Mr. Russo’s work currently focuses on a group of teenagers, helping them learn how to deal with life once they age out of foster care. “When kids turn 18, they have the option of staying with the Division [now called the Department of Children and Families ] or leaving,” she said. “Many leave because they’re so fed up.”
Her work as an advocate is as “a gatherer, not a sharer,” Ms. Russo said. “I’d like to adopt all of the kids I work with, but of course I know I can’t. I’d just love them to be in good adoptive homes. There are so few homes out there for them.”