Defender of Ellis County’s most vulnerable
While Ellis County is known for its strong family values, great schools, and low crime, the reality is that not all have that experience – and some of its most vulnerable residents are children. Victims of various forms of abuse and neglect, they find themselves removed from their homes and living within the foster care system.
It is a deep and personal understanding of these circumstances that led Rhodie Rawls to become involved with CASA of Ellis County.
CASA stands for court appointed special advocate and the nonprofit’s mission is to serve children who have been removed from their homes.
“I’ve been executive director for CASA of Ellis County for the past 15 years,” Rawls said. “Prior to that, my husband and I were foster parents for 12 years, fostering 65 children over those 12 years. Our two biological children were in college and high school when we became foster parents.
“We had no intention of adopting as we believed fostering was our ministry; we could love on the children who came through our home, caring for and nurturing them to be returned to their family or prepare them for their new forever family if they could not return home,” she said. “Five of those 65 children never left our home but were adopted by us, which gives us a total of seven children now.”
While she was serving as a foster parent, CASA did not yet exist in Ellis County but Rawls saw the need for these vulnerable children to have an advocate.
“I was asked to serve on a steering committee to help bring a CASA program to Ellis County and was a founding board member for our local CASA program,” she said. “In the first 14 months of our new CASA program, we had two executive directors. After the second one left, the board approached me about becoming the executive director due to my extensive experience and influence in the foster care world.”
She believes her experience with foster children in her own home and the experiences of other foster parents that were part of her local foster parent association taught her a great deal about the inner workings of the foster care system.
“I often was asked to serve on various committees and boards as a foster parent liaison which also added to my knowledge of the system,” she said. “As CASA, we work hand in hand with the CPS system but our position is always to speak on what is in the best interest of the child.
“My experience for the past 26 years has given me access to the large network of individuals involved in providing services to abused and neglected children in Texas, whether it be CPS staff, attorneys, child placement agencies, foster parents or child advocates,” she said. “This wide-ranging network has allowed me to serve the children in Ellis County in influencing both policy and procedures for the benefit of children.”
Along the way, Rawls has experienced “countless memories.”
“One that always comes to mind is the story of a 15-year-old girl who was in foster care and had to testify in another state against her perpetrator,” she said. “Her CASA volunteer advocate was able to accompany her and be present in the courtroom when she testified. In this situation, a child would always be traveling with a CPS worker but the worker may be one of multiple workers on the case and not necessarily one whom the child may have a relationship with.
“A CASA advocate is only appointed to one case at a time and they commit to staying on the case from beginning to end, as to be the constant throughout the case,” Rawls said. “For this teenager, her CASA was there for support through a most difficult situation, to help her feel safe and secure.”
Ellis County is one of the few counties in Texas that has enough CASA volunteer advocates to where every child can be served when he or she must be removed from their home due to abuse and placed in foster care.
“Our goal is to continue to serve 100-percent of the children in our community who need us to be their voice,” Rawls said.
The organization is always looking to train more volunteer advocates and Rawls encourages people who are interested to contact her.
She’s also pleased to announce a capital campaign that will provide CASA of Ellis County with additional space.
“As our community continues to grow, so do our needs,” Rawls said. “We are in the process of building a new facility. Our existing building, where we have been housed since our inception in 2004, is nearly 100 years old and has become structurally unsound with patch upon patch to repair the multiple deficiencies. It has become untenable to continue to use the existing structure as an office.
“Our plan is to demolish the existing structure, prepare the site for a new modern office that will house our existing staff and provide the space for additional growth in coming years,” she said.
The existing space of 1,500 square feet will be replaced with a 2,400 square foot building that will provide office space, a conference room, a training center and a place where children can visit with family members in a safe and supervised environment.
“As part of our capital campaign, we are soliciting support from our community,” Rawls said. “Your donation will go toward helping our CASA kiddos, CASA volunteer advocates and your community.”