The Power of an Advocate

 

This month we are highlighting Advocacy and our story comes from Taylor Baierlein who is a Case Manager at Placer County CASA. The following story is her retelling of a fellow case manager, Laurie Tyrrell’s experience while advocating for 11 year old Alex.

“Laurie Tyrrell has been a Case Manager at Child Advocates of Placer County since 2009.  In order to understand what the volunteer advocates in our program experience, staff members at Child Advocates are required to work at least one volunteer case along with their typical case load.  Shortly after Laurie was hired in 2010,  Alex (above) was appointed as her first CASA case. Laurie remembers the initial meeting with Alex well, sharing the experience in her own words by saying that on that particular day she, “…went to take the six kids at the shelter out for ice cream but when I arrived, there was a 7th kid.” Alex was the 7th kid. ‘Our eyes met… he’d just gotten there and he looked so lost.' {Because I wasn’t initially planning on taking 7 kids,] I told him I would come back and take him for ice cream by himself, and I did! We had a great time!’ Alex was 11-years-old at the time.

Usually when someone is appointed as a CASA they are able to read the child’s case file before meeting them in person. In this case, Laurie met Alex that day at the shelter and,  as she later read through the file outlining his struggles and situation prior to coming into care, she was shocked by all the trials this young boy had faced.  Laurie was determined to stand by Alex in his journey ahead. Little did she know her original 18 month commitment was going to turn into a lifelong friendship.

It was clear to Laurie that Alex had had an unfair share of challenging circumstances thrown his way. At one point, a staff member at the group home Alex had come from told Laurie that Alex did not have a conscience and could not be taught one.  Alex had a difficult home life. His mother had a lot of people in and out of the home and there was concern that someone had harmed him in the midst of all that was going on.  His mother, diagnosed with a terminal disease,  was sometimes very ill, which was hard on him as well. On top of all this, Laurie remembers that from a very young age Alex struggled with a narcissistic personality,  often leading to behavioral problems in foster care. Laurie shares, ‘For a while his behavior was the worst of any kid in our entire case load! As a result of his behavioral issues, he went from a level 10 to a level 12 group home very quickly.  He was in five group homes and seven placements within a five year span.’

But there was always hope for Alex’s future. Laurie remembers that she saw a turning point when he was 16 ½, during his stay at his fifth group home. He seemed to be tired of living the kind of life he had been. He really pulled it together for a while, taking positive steps forward in his own healing, and was even able to go back home with his parents. However, he had to learn how to be back in his home again.

Such a statement may seem odd to us, but try to imagine being institutionalized for a long time and then going back to “normal life”,  suddenly having to make all your own decisions. Things began going downhill for Alex shortly after he returned home.  He had difficulty adjusting, actually wanting to go back to a group home (which was not an option).  He attempted suicide two times, one so serious that it put him in the ICU for 10 days. He also committed a crime, hoping to get back into a probation group home.

But after going downhill again, things began to “click” for him, and he started to make the positive steps he needed.  Laurie comments on the change she saw in him,  stating, ‘I was a part of his journey but he really did it on his own. It is funny that although many people talked about his behavioral issues, throughout our entire relationship, he was never disrespectful or mean to me. I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that I never told him what to do.  I always treated him kind of like a peer or equal and he seemed to always respect and respond well to that.’

During the five years that Laurie was appointed as his CASA she had the opportunity to advocate for him to participate in football, guitar lessons, and wrestling.  Alex had always been gentle and sweet towards her, even going so far as to buy her gifts at one point, and Laurie returned the kindness.  ‘When the authorities wanted to close his case sooner than what I felt was best for him, I was successful in advocating for keeping it open so that he would qualify for the AB12 program (extended benefits for those in foster care)’, Laurie shared.

Because Laurie didn’t hold Alex’s past against him, and instead gave him a clean slate to develop his relationship with her, Alex had a foundation for positive growth.  Looking at Alex’s life now, Laurie shares, ‘My hope is that he will stay on this track! He is a wonderful young man!’  In fact, Alex’s whole family has changed so much that now they can enjoy having him come by for a visit! “

While Laurie was only one person in Alex’s life, her ability to look beyond his upbringing and his challenges and see him for the person he could be gave him the courage to try to change. Alex is 19 now and a high-school graduate,  currently going to Sacramento City College. While he still receives some treatment and sees a counselor for anxiety, Laurie says he is doing very well and seems to truly be experiencing lasting transformation.  

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