When Heather Sweeney was preparing to retire from her extensive career in education, she saw an ad on TV that caught her eye. It was for CASA of New Hampshire, seeking volunteers to serve as advocates for children caught up in abuse or neglect cases in New Hampshire’s family courts.
Having long been a champion of children, Heather knew this was something she wanted to do in her post-teaching life.
“I taught for 30 years and I have just seen family units get weaker and weaker, and the problems it is causing for students is just tremendous.”
From children who come to school hungry, or struggle with anxiety and depression, or lacking a warm coat for New Hampshire’s winters, Heather has provided as much as she can for these kids without overstepping her boundaries as a teacher.
“I always had food in my drawers for kids who came to school hungry. Or we had coats and warm clothing,” Heather said. “It just got to be so incredible.”
As a teacher, she said, there is only so much you are allowed professionally to do and say for children and families you suspect are struggling at home.
“I thought, ‘that will finally allow me to do the things that frustrated me over the years that I wanted to do for these kids,’” she said of the opportunity to be a CASA.
In 2016, Heather filled out the volunteer application to become a court-appointed special advocate and started the process. Following an extensive interview with staff, she was accepted into a 40-hour pre-service training required of all volunteers before they can take a case and begin working directly with a child.
Graduating from training in early November, it took less than a week for Heather to jump into her first case with a child whose parents had been reported for neglect. The parents, just young teenagers themselves, lack both the skills to care for a newborn and the support from their own parents to help them.
In her role as a CASA, it is Heather’s job to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the court, making independent, objective recommendations to the judge based on the information she has gathered through visits with the child, foster parents, parents, doctors and other important adults in the child’s life.
She has written court reports and attended court hearings where she is given the opportunity to share in-person her observations and recommendations regarding what she believes is in the child’s best interest.
CASA volunteers are trained to help the child navigate this process efficiently so he or she may find stability in a safe, permanent, loving home as quickly as possible while enduring the least amount of trauma and upheaval.
Though it may sound cliché, Heather said this work is simply a natural extension of her career because it’s what she has done on a different level for years.
“CASA provides me a vehicle to do all the things I wanted to do so badly for these kids as a teacher,” she said.
Certified to teach middle and high school, with degrees in art and science, Heather spent much of her career as an eighth grade science teacher in Merrimack. As a teacher she honed her skills in building a rapport with kids, and with parents. Both are incredibly useful as a CASA, she said. Particularly so on her case where it turns out the parents are kids.
“I’ve learned over the years to be patient with parents. Life is not easy,” Heather said. “I’ve also learned that all parents love their kids, they want to do the best by them, but sometimes it is just too stressful.”
And that, she said comes back on the kids and manifests itself in their behavior. It can make them insecure or self-conscious. It drives a defeatist attitude. As a teacher, you spend your career pushing students to be their best selves, to challenge them and produce the best work they can, she said. But trouble at home can stymy a child’s success in school.
“That’s why being a CASA is great. You can help them on another level,” Heather said. “You can be behind them in a way you couldn’t as a teacher.”
Newly retired, Heather said CASA was the perfect challenge in the next phase of her life. It encourages her to use her skills she’s honed as an educator, but provides a significant amount of flexibility. It’s not like school, where she had to be up early in the morning.
“You can sleep until 8,” she quipped.
She can still travel to see her children on the West Coast and in France, and she knows she has the support from the staff at CASA to guide her through the unknown.
But above all, it allows her to reach children in a new and rewarding way.
“It puts you in the trenches with these kids,” Heather said. “Now you can see what you could only guess. What you suspected as a teacher, you know as a CASA.”