Jewish community has impact on program
By Michael Sudhalter
Rhoda Bernstein looks back in amazement at the fact that she was able to spearhead the arrival of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program to Tarrant County 40 years ago.
“I always say it’s the best thing I ever did,” said Bernstein, a lifelong Fort Worthian and member of Congregation Ahavath Sholom who has a background in counseling. “It’s an amazing legacy and it’s very meaningful to this day to think about all of the kids who were helped through the organization. I was at the right place at the right time. I had no idea of the impact it would make.”
Bernstein spoke at a CASA 40th anniversary event on Sept. 14 at River Ranch Stockyards in Fort Worth. The event celebrated four decades of providing safety, permanency and healing for children.
Back in 1983, Bernstein did an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in which she pleaded for prospective volunteers. The caption under her photo even read “looking for help.”
At the time, Tarrant County had 260 children in foster care.
As of last year, Tarrant County CASA’s 579 volunteers served 1,098 children, only 65% of the estimated 1,652 children who were in need of the organization; 43% of the children served are 5 years old or younger.
CASA’s first chapter was founded in Seattle, in 1977, by Judge David Soukup, who was concerned by the lack of information available when it came to cases for abused and neglected children.
While there may be other legal parties who are arguing for one direction or another for the child, the CASA volunteer is a neutral observer who is dedicated to the child’s best interest.
The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) — Bernstein was a member of its Fort Worth chapter at the time — played an important role in providing grants to start CASA.
Congregation Beth-El’s Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger was a key leader in the early days of Tarrant County CASA as well.
Not long after Seattle, a chapter opened in Dallas, which also caught Bernstein’s attention. Tarrant County Juvenile Judge Scott Moore thought it would be a good idea for the western side of the Metroplex.
“I was praying that there wouldn’t be a need for this organization in 2023, but there’s still a tremendous need for CASA,” Bernstein said.
The need is considerable, since Tarrant County has the highest per capita child abuse rate of all urban areas in Texas.
There are currently more than 100,000 volunteers for 939 CASA or GAL (Guardians Ad Litem) chapters in 49 states; in Texas alone there are 73 chapters.
Bernstein worked tirelessly to build the organization, obtaining a 501(c) status, writing bylaws, hiring the first director, searching for volunteers and working with the NCJW, Junior League and individual donors in Fort Worth to propel Tarrant County CASA into existence. Bernstein served on the Tarrant County CASA board for a few years.
“Then, it was time to let the organization fly — and it did,” Bernstein said.
CASA still impacted by Jewish community
Jaycee Greenblatt, CASA Tarrant County director of community engagement, is a Jewish professional who lives in Tarrant County. She was hired for the position earlier this year.
Greenblatt said CASA had 579 volunteers last year. They donated 50,000 hours of their time and drove 151,600 miles.
But there are many children still in need of CASA who do not have an advocate. CASA plays an integral role because 95% of children with an advocate have been placed in a permanent home, compared with 85% of non-CASA children.
“We have also seen a higher reunification with family members when it’s a CASA-involved case,” Greenblatt said. “If reunification is not possible, the child could be adopted by family members or family friends. Connecting to family creates that sense of belonging.”
Greenblatt has played a key role in recruiting volunteers, who are sworn to keep the information confidential.
“The first part of volunteering is 30 hours of training in a month,” Greenblatt said. “They are sworn in by the judge in the case, they are pitched a case and they accept the case. They work the case for what could be a year, but it’s usually longer. We train the volunteers to advocate in the best interests of the child and to advocate for home placement that is safe and fulfilling.”
One of the recently-appointed volunteers is north Fort Worth resident Barbara Hubbard, a member of the Jewish community who relocated to North Texas from California.
“When I retired, I went on a website for volunteers and it recommended CASA,” Hubbard said. “The more I read about it, the more I thought, ‘Wow, this is something where I can really make a difference.’ A lot of Judaism is about volunteering and it teaches you to take care of other people. This is one way of doing a mitzvah — speaking for people who can’t speak for themselves. I absolutely love volunteering for CASA.”
Greenblatt said foster care can be a very challenging time in a child’s life because of all the changes — new schools, new friends and new parents/guardians.
Greenblatt said volunteering for CASA “is very different than any other volunteer experience” and it’s an unduplicated social service.
Greenblatt, who earned a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis, previously worked for the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, the American Jewish University, Habitat For Humanity, Moishe House, Jewish Family Services of Broward County (Florida), an elephant conservation project in Thailand and a sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica.
While all of those experiences were very fulfilling, Greenblatt is grateful that she chose to work for CASA, where she has a great deal of respect for the foundation built by Bernstein and others in the early days of the Tarrant County chapter.
“The CASA volunteer is the one constant — an unpaid, unbiased, objective individual that’s part of the case,” Greenblatt said. “We always say ‘There’s a season and moment in your time to volunteer’ for CASA.”