By Carla Caldwell
It was almost 10 years ago that Linda Bressler of Sandy Springs read a newspaper article about Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and decided to volunteer with the program.
Bressler was a longtime volunteer in her community and at her children’s schools, but with her children getting older, she had more time on her hands and was looking for meaningful ways to use it. “I told my husband [Richard] that I had read the most amazing article,” Bressler explained recently. “I said, ‘This is an organization that can make a difference.’”
Volunteers with CASA are community volunteers trained and then appointed by a judge to advocate for children involved in juvenile court proceedings due to neglect, abuse or abandonment. The goal is to as quickly as possible place children in safe, permanent homes with a parent or family member – or, if necessary, a foster home.
CASAs get to know children, as well as anyone else who could be involved with providing them a home. They speak on behalf of a child in court and pass along recommendations to any agencies involved, including DFACS (Department of Family and Children’s Services). “Judges and others involved in cases listen to CASAs,” said Bressler, “because they are there solely in the child’s interest.”
Not long after Bressler was sworn in by a Fulton County judge, she was assigned her first case.
Two children, a girl, 12, and her brother, 10, needed help. Their mother had dropped them off at an aunt’s house in southwest Atlanta; the mother apparently left to hang out and do drugs. The aunt, who also had children ages 12 and 10, had her own problems and soon left all four children to fend for themselves. When a neighbor realized that an adult had not been around for a week, police were called and the children were placed in foster care.
Bressler was called in to work with the girl and boy who’d beem dropped off at the home.
Through the years, Bressler made sure the children had a safe place to live and were cared for. She made sure they were involved with programs that were fun and provided stability. The young woman thrived, for example, when she participated in the Big Sisters program, Bressler said.
Both earned a GED. The young woman, now 21, has taken classes at Georgia Perimeter College and works in retail at an area shopping center. The young man, 19, lives in New Jersey.
Bressler has always been no more than a phone call away, but the relationship goes far beyond that – and continues today.
The children spent many holidays, birthdays and other special occasions with the Bresslers and their children, Adam, Jay and Leigh Anne.
Leigh Anne Bressler, who is now in medical school, was at one time the girl’s math tutor. Adam, now a doctor, some time ago helped the young woman secure a job in the dietary department at the hospital where he works.
Richard Bressler, a longtime volunteer for other organizations, was inspired by his wife’s experience and became involved with CASA. He serves on the organization’s board and helps raise money for training and services. In addition, he has worked for more than 30 years with ORT. The nonprofit program, started in Russia in 1880 with the original intent of providing employable skills for Russia’s impoverished Jewish people, has grown to provide career, vocational and technical training to students at more than 800 ORT schools, colleges and international programs in more than 63 countries. More than 3 million students have graduated from the program.
Iris Ross, executive director of Fulton County CASA, says she is grateful to the Bresslers for ensuring that more children can benefit from CASA. “They are willing to put in the hard work to change lives,” she said. “I know that I can count on the Bressler family if we ever need anything.”
The children can count on them, too.
On a recent day, as Linda Bressler talked about the special relationship she’s had with the sister and brother, the phone rang, and it was the young woman calling to say hello.
“That’s her now,” Bressler said, smiling, recognizing the caller ID. “We talk all the time.”
CASA was founded in Seattle in 1976. A Fulton County program was started in 1995, and since then the county has trained more than 400 volunteers and served more than 1,500 children. But due to staff and budget limitations, some 85 percent of abused and neglected children who have come through Fulton courts have not had the benefit of a CASA. Some 1,700 to 2,000 children are added to the foster care roles in Fulton County each year, Bressler said.
For more information about CASA, call 404-224-4720, or go to www.fultoncountycasa.org.