by Laurie Ghigliotti
ATCHISON — In most people, the idea of going to court conjures up feelings of dread.
But in Susan Draftz, a parishioner of St. Benedict’s Parish in Atchison, it summons up a sense of purpose . . . and pride.
Draftz is a CASA volunteer.
Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, serve as champions for children at the discretion of a judge hearing a case that involves the welfare of a child. Usually these involve abuse or neglect, or are cases of juvenile delinquency in which neglect or abuse is a factor. Because of the sensitive nature of the cases, CASA volunteers are required to keep all information about their work confidential.
Kelly Meyer, the executive director of the CASA program in Leavenworth and Atchison counties, and her staff supervise Draftz and 50 other CASA volunteers.
Draftz is one of only four CASAs in Atchison, said Meyer, where there is always a shortage of volunteers.
A typical case involves a child in the community who has been physically abused by a parent, and someone has called SRS to report the suspected abuse, Meyer said. If the case goes to court, a judge can request a CASA to investigate, giving him or her access to the court file, the social service file, mental health and medical files, as well as school records.
“Once the CASA completes the initial investigation, the CASA meets with the child, the child’s parents, and foster parents, depending on the situation,” said Meyer. “The CASA then reports to the judge.”
The initial goal is to ensure that children have a safe and permanent home, with the ultimate end being the eventual reintegration of the child back into his or her family.
“The CASA makes sure everyone knows what’s going on so reintegration can occur,” said Meyer.
To that end, the CASA keeps track of all situations in a child’s life.
“The most important part is that the CASA asks the child what they want the judge to know,” Meyer said. “What the child says is reported verbatim to the judge in writing. It gives the child a voice.”
A CASA helps ensure that children are getting the full benefit of the system — without getting lost in it, Draftz said.
“We’re required to spend at least an hour each month with the child,” Draftz said, “but most will spend much more than that.”
CASAs can remain on a case for several years — maintaining contact with the child, social services, parents, foster parents and the court — until the situation is permanently resolved.
Draftz’s husband Tim can easily see why his wife finds her role so rewarding.
“Susan has always believed that the juvenile court is for the benefit and wellbeing of the child,” he said. “In divorce court, Susan has served as guardian ad litem for children involved in custody fights.
With her legal background, I can see how she wants to continue fighting for children.”
The Draftzes are parents of eight children, ranging in age from seven to 27, and are expecting their first grandchild soon. Draftz’s CASA involvement began in Illinois, where she served as a CASA for three years. She has served an additional three years in Kansas.
“I originally got involved because I was working as an attorney in juvenile court and we were also foster parents for pregnant teens,” Draftz said. “It just seemed like the next reasonable step.”
Although the challenges seem endless, the work is rewarding, said Draftz.
“Sometimes you wonder if you’re making a difference,” she said. “But as you look back and see what you got done, you can see you did make a difference in the lives of the children.”
Draftz’s volunteer efforts are not limited to the CASA program, however.
Living for life
Draftz also serves as president of Concerned Citizens for Life, the local association of Kansans for Life, which educates the public about pro-life issues.
“We’re present at parades in Atchison County and provide the pro-life voter’s guide before elections,” Draftz said. “We also do the National Day of Prayer the first Thursday in May and the Life Chain in Atchison in October.”
She is also president of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women and a political activist.
“I’m politically active as a volunteer for any candidate who’s pro-life, regardless of their party affiliation,” she said.
Most recently, she could be found with her three youngest sons walking Atchison neighborhoods distributing fliers for pro-life candidates. Her 13-year-old son Kevin often helps with this and other projects.
“I think she’s definitely made a difference,” he said. “She doesn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s horrible.’ She actually does something about it.”
Draftz appreciates her family’s help and sees a greater purpose in having the children involved than just getting the work done.
“I think it strengthens their faith and commitment to helping others,” she said.
Propelling the next generation to act
While Kevin said he would prefer to be like a cat — eating, drinking and sleeping, when he’s not playing video games — he understands the lessons his mother is teaching him.
“She won’t let me be a sideline Catholic,” he said.
Kevin’s older siblings have learned that same lesson. According to their father, the older Draftz children are all involved in health, education and protection of those who most need help.
Their pastor, Benedictine Father Gerard Senecal of St. Benedict’s Parish, concurred.
“Tim and Susan are exceptionally devoted to the Catholic education of their children and teach their children to put first things first in their lives,” he said.
With a household to run in addition to her community involvement, juggling commitments can be difficult, Draftz admitted.
“Through the grace of God, I get up in the morning and ask him what’s on the list today,” she said.
And, somehow, what needs doing, gets done. She is grateful for the help of friends who lighten the load.
And although she takes on a lot, her husband said her activities reflect her nature as a mother.
“Sometimes her activities can be exasperating, because she puts a lot of time and effort into them,” he said. “But I know her concern for children is as natural as breathing air for her.”
Draftz, on the other hand, says her commitment to the cause of the most vulnerable flows naturally from her sense of identity.
“My activism is part of who I am — Catholic,” she concluded.