TWIN FALLS, Idaho • About 525 children were abused or neglected so badly last year that they had to be removed from their homes in south-central Idaho.
That’s far too many for 67 trained volunteer advocates to adequately help, said Tahna Barton, director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program.
CASA is seeing about the same number of children this year, but many locals mistakenly think child abuse is “a big-city problem,” Barton said.
“One of our worst cases was a little guy who was put in a box and dirt (was) thrown on him for punishment. That sounds like something you’d hear of in New York or Florida, but that happened in downtown Twin Falls,” she said. “That little guy was kept in a cement room.”
When a home is deemed unsafe, children are placed in emergency foster homes or juvenile detention centers. A CASA seeks out these kids to comfort them and explain how everything is being done to protect them.
But CASA doesn’t have enough volunteers, and a child without an advocate easily slips through cracks in the system, Barton said.
“I have more than 100 kids that don’t have a CASA volunteer appointed to them right now. I have so many people that don’t think we need volunteers because we don’t have a lot of abuse going on. Really, what they need to know is that it does exist and there is a need.”
A CASA’s main role is to advocate for a child’s best interests in court. Without an advocate, children are more likely to be locked up or bounced from home to home, she said.
“A lot of people underestimate themselves. They don’t think they’re good enough or they’re smart enough or they have enough education,” Barton said. “We highly screen our volunteers, but what we need more than anything is sound-minded individuals that understand children and know what’s best for a child. And if you have that foundation, the training for everything else is there.”
When Jeannine Barneby retired from nonprofit work in 2001, she looked for a way to keep using her skills. First she volunteered with the Boys and Girls Club of the Magic Valley, but she wanted to work with kids more closely.
At first she refused an invitation to volunteer as a CASA, but later decided to give it a shot.
“I wasn’t exactly sure if I could do it, deal with some of the more emotional situations,” Barneby recalled. “Could I do that? Remain objective, investigate and not take everything to heart? I sure surprised myself. Righteous indignation comes out because you have to fight hard for these kids because who is going to do it?”
Jeannine’s husband, Dave Barneby, volunteered too. They have advocated for more than 50 kids since becoming CASAs in 2005.
“We have some pretty wide-ranging investigative powers that the social workers don’t have,” said Dave Barneby. “We can go to the doctors that are involved. HIPAA does not bind them. We can talk to them. We have a judge’s appointment that lets us get into some things that a social worker can’t.”
Because of their time with CASA, they’re allowed to handle high-profile cases, which include sexual and physical abuse.
“We have seen families going on three, four generations of drug abuse or sex abuse. It’s generational. That’s what they know; they don’t know any different,” he said.
The Barnebys sometimes work 15 hours a day on cases, and the work has been eye-opening.
“Not that we lived in a bubble,” Jeannine said. “I’m not saying that. ... Being face to face with it, it’s a renewed appreciation for our own parents giving us the things that we had and the values that we had that we could give to our children. We see that these kids we are trying to help, they have not seen good things.
“There are problems in our community. And if you see them, speak up. Be more appreciative of what you have. Don’t be critical of that child you see that maybe comes to school dirty.”
The Barnebys said they have helped several children break generational cycles of dysfunction. Some have climbed out of bleak socioeconomic roots, but others have wound up in prison.
“If I make a difference in one or two lives, I hang onto that,” Jeannine said.
Despite a childhood of abuse and abandonment, one Twin Falls woman managed to rise above.
“My mom gave me and my brother up when we were small,” said Natassia Lee, 21. “I grew up with my grandparents. She left us to go and do drugs and be all crazy. I really resented it when my mom left, because who was going to take me to school my first day? Who was going to do all those things with me?”
Abandonment issues manifested into behavioral problems and made it difficult for her grandmother to raise her. Lee moved back in with her mom when she was 12. She acknowledges that her dysfunctional behavior didn’t mix well with her mother’s and stepfather’s alcoholism. Fights erupted, with violence by all parties.
Lee said she was 15 when the adults reprimanded her for sneaking out to see a boy. “ ... we got in this big blowout. They grounded me and said all kinds of things. They went to bed. Then I snuck out my window and ran away because I didn’t want to deal with her screaming and saying I can’t do anything right. My goal was to get as far away from them as I could, but that didn’t work.”
Police picked up Lee and took her to juvenile detention. She was an unlikely candidate for adoption because of her age.
A CASA represented her through four court hearings.
“It would have been super hard to tell the court what I wanted and needed or my case worker, you can’t always give them a call. Your case worker works close with your CASA worker, and they do what’s best for you.”
After being institutionalized and stripped of privileges, Lee wanted to go home again. But her mom didn’t want her and let the state terminate her parental rights when Lee was 17. It was the second time she was abandoned.
Lee spent the rest of her childhood in the Safe House, a strict facility. A few months before turning 18, she took a few courses on finances there.
She said she hadn’t graduated from high school, and no one taught her how to find a job or apartment. But she was turned out a day after her 18th birthday.
That’s one example of “slipping through the cracks,” Lee noted, and it’s one of the biggest problems facing CASA.
A foster child isn’t allowed to get a driver’s license, Barton noted, and services to help transition kids into adult life are nearly non-existent.
“That’s got to be tough — turning 18, not having parents, not having a driver’s license, not having a job because you probably couldn’t get to work and you don’t have anybody to take you to work,” Barton said.
With nowhere to go, Lee went back to her mom and stepdad. Predictably, she said, “The fights just started right where they stopped. So I moved out.”
Lee said she worked two jobs, tried to finish high school and “struggled to stay afloat.” Then she discovered crystal methamphetamine. In January 2012, she was arrested on felony drug charges and spent two months in jail.
Most people who spend their childhoods in foster homes and facilities wind up in prison, on drugs or dead, Barton said. Lee appeared to be headed down that path.
“When I was in jail,” Lee said, “I filled my time doing stuff that would help me because I wanted to learn how to never be in there again. That color is horrible on me. I hate orange. I will never look at orange the same ever again.”
When she got out of jail, Lee completed drug treatment, found work and enrolled in the College of Southern Idaho. She’s since helped other kids struggling in the CASA program and is working to start a foster care alumni group to help kids in the system transition into adulthood.
“I worked so hard to become a better person because once I graduate from probation, they’re going to expunge my record. I’ve worked so hard to do well so it can be expunged.”
Lee has done so well, Barton said, that she sometimes has her offer cautionary tales to at-risk youths who don’t have families.
Despite all she’s gone through, from abandonment to imprisonment, Lee said she looks at life differently now. She said she let go of regret and tries to demonstrate the power of forgiveness.
She said she owes her mother thanks, because her journey has opened her mind and allowed for personal growth.
Once her criminal record is expunged, Lee said, she wants to become a social worker and use her experience to help others.