Nobody said growing up was easy, but for kids in the court system, it can be even harder than usual.
Going through the court system at 14 was confusing and traumatic for Michelle Privette, but Columbus Heard, her court-appointed special advocate, gave her an anchor in the storm.
Angry and scared by her situation, Michelle had been bombarded by an endless stream of social workers, therapists and others, and she didn’t want to talk with Heard or anyone else.
“Little by little I let her know my role as a CASA, which was to make sure her needs were being met, and she was in a safe environment,” said Heard.
When Michelle found out Heard was a volunteer and not getting paid for spending time with her, she began to really trust his presence in her life.
“He was persistent, and it was annoying,” she said. “Then I found out he was a volunteer. He did this for free, in his free time, instead of going home and watching TV or spending time with his daughter. I couldn’t comprehend the idea of someone being so selfless.”
Michelle calls Heard a mentor and a friend. Sometimes they’d chat about her court case, but most of the time, they’d talk about movies, TV or clothes she’d bought that week. Heard even brought his daughter to watch Michelle’s school play.
He also reached out and talked to Michelle’s father, which comforted her.
“I wanted her to have love for her dad. He thought he was doing the best thing (for her), where in reality it wasn’t the best thing,” Heard said.
Before everything went bad, Michelle was a self-proclaimed daddy’s girl and loved to learn about home repair from her father. But then, after a house fire, her dad started drinking, verbally abusing her and physically assaulting her brother.
“He was really depressed. He knew what was happening, but he couldn’t stop it,” Michelle said. “I knew it was the alcohol, but that was what took (his) pain away.”
One day her alarm failed to go off and she missed the school bus. Her dad cursed and refused to drive her to school. Then 14, Michelle walked three miles to school in the rain, and despite her fears of foster care, told the school counselor what was going on at home.
After a traumatic five-day stay at a group home, she was assigned to foster parents Rob and Renee Walters.
That’s when Heard showed up.
“One of the key things Columbus was able to do is be accepting of Michelle’s thoughts and feelings and show respect for her perspectives, which for teenagers can be meaningful,” said Lois Rice, executive director of CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
Last year, 134 CASA volunteers helped 304 children in Johnson County, Rice said, but there aren’t enough volunteers for every child in the system to have one. Volunteers do not need legal experience, but they must be 21, attend 30 hours of training and commit to at least one year of service.
In 2012, only 5 percent of children with a court-appointed special advocate returned to the courts with further problems.
Michelle said her foster parents were trying to help her, but she didn’t want to listen. She tuned them out and lied about doing homework and studying. Heard’s commitment to her changed her attitude.
“This is the best person I’ve ever known. He made me want to try harder in school. I wanted him to be proud of me,” Michelle said.
She went from having failing grades to straight As. Now 18 and a senior at Olathe South High School, Michelle will be in the scholarship hall at the University of Kansas next year, and she’s received the Hixson Opportunity Award, a $5,000 renewable scholarship.
Her success comes with heartache too. She had hoped to one day re-establish a relationship with her dad on an adult level, but on her first day of school at Olathe South, she found out that he had died.
“He was a good person and he tried hard. He just wasn’t able to be a parent for me at the time,” she said.
She still lives with the Walters couple, who became her legal guardians. They are fostering two other children and are planning to help Michelle through college, even though they have no legal responsibility to do so.
Michelle plans to get a master’s and a doctorate in clinical psychology so she can help kids like herself. And one day, she’d like to be a court-appointed special advocate, too.
“(Columbus) gave me a friend. He was the one stable thing I could count on,” Michelle said. “I want to be like Columbus, because I know what a huge difference (court-appointed special advocates) make.”