HELENA — John Weida may be doing some of his most meaningful work now that he’s retired.
In his 71 years, he’s spent 17 of them working in a chemical dependency unit at the Montana State Hospital in Galen. He gave another 13 years to the state Department of Labor and Industry where he focused his attention on injured workers and insurance companies.
But since 1991, before he had left the Department of Labor and Industry, he began giving his time and heart to help abused and neglected children through the local Court Appointed Special Advocates program, CASA, of Lewis and Clark and Broadwater Counties.
The focus of a CASA volunteer’s efforts is ensuring the health and safety of children in broken homes.
In Weida’s nearly 15 years with CASA, he’s come to know well 11 families and 21 children. In the district court system where these families became enmeshed, they would be called cases.
“My charge is to keep the kid healthy and safe,” Weida said.
A CASA volunteer becomes the eyes and ears for a district court judge, Weida said, as a family tries to put itself back together through court-ordered programs that could be aimed at chemical dependency or parenting skills.
“We are not therapists. We are not counselors. We are not attorneys,” Weida said. “We have to be very careful of our role not to overstep our bounds.”
The volunteer will advise the judge on the child, the parents, perhaps foster parents if they’re involved, or the parents’ extended families if they become a part of the child’s life. A volunteer should plan on a couple of years to see the process to its conclusion.
Children raised by parents who lack parenting skills grow into adults who aren’t equipped to raise children, Weida said.
“Our culture is not very good in many cases of raising parents,” he said. Once these children become adults, he said, “They often don’t know how to raise kids.”
“When you break something as complicated as (a family), there are no fixes. There are only patches,” Weida said.
Story of heartbreak
On the restaurant table where Weida talks of what it means to be a CASA volunteer sits a slim folder full of white pages, the story of a child’s life. He pauses before he discusses what he can of what this child endured and turns away. His eyes are wet with tears.
“I got him when he was 13,” Weida said, noting the child was removed from his parents when he was only 5 years old.
He doesn’t name the child or discuss any revealing details. This child could be anyone. A child from across town, down the block or across the street.
Weida counts the interventions made into the child’s life such as that by counselors and therapists or placements through social services. There were 25 of these efforts, he said.
“I lost count of his therapists at 20,” Weida said. “That’s a pretty extreme case.”
By the time the child was 15, the child knew how to manipulate those who were trying to help, he added.
Early in the child’s journey through a legal system that struggles to help these children, Weida became the sole person who was a constant in the child’s life.
At age 18, children are no longer a part of the legal system, although this child and Weida have not parted ways.
“He’s still in my life,” Weida said. “He asked if he could stay in touch.”
“This is a kid who is totally unprepared to live a rewarding, adequate social life.”
Even so, Weida and the child continue to work together to give the child a future that might otherwise have never been possible.
Uncertainty for children
CASA can become involved when something causes a broken family to come to the attention of the legal system. Maybe a doctor will make a report because of a child brought in for treatment. Perhaps it’s a neighbor that comes forward.
Once the family is part of the criminal justice system, a child protective services worker is assigned to the case, Weida said, and the judge may seek assistance from CASA.
Of the state’s 22 judicial districts, 16 of them have CASA programs, he noted.
CASA’s top priority is to see the family reunited. If that’s not possible, then it seeks to involve the parents’ extended families in the child’s life.
While the parents try to comply with a court-ordered treatment plan, the child could be sent to a foster home for six months or a year to await the outcome.
A young child can become emotionally attached to a foster family and then face readjustment when reunited with parents, Weida said.
An older child might be left with little to look forward to other than trying to survive the change, he added.
“It’s just incredibly complicated,” Weida said.
Helping change lives
Weida is part of the 62 active local CASA advocates who operate through two paid staff positions. This year there are 118 children in the caseload, and last year at this time there were 78. He blames the increase on drugs and methamphetamine.
While 21 new advocates have gone through the screening and training process this year, many more are needed, Weida said. Anyone who is interested in helping should call the CASA office at 457-0797.
“We could keep 100 busy right now,” he added.
In his years as a volunteer, Weida has learned lessons on attachment to the children he has been assigned to and on judgment of family members.
His lessons came, he explained, from getting attached to the children and seeing how his judgments proved wrong.
Being a part of CASA has taught him about the different worlds that are a part of Helena.
“I’m more aware of folks that don’t live in my world,” he said.
He is a volunteer because he helps families, but he does it for himself too.
“It feels good to me to think that I’m helping somebody,” he explained.
“I decided I wanted to do something that was hands-on. It was what I was looking for. It feels like a long-term investment.
“It’s kind of like tossing a pebble in a stream and it flows different ways all the way to the ocean,” he explained of the consequences of his involvement.
“It’s pretty subtle.”