More than once, domestic violence ripped Nicole Staller’s home life apart. More than once, she lost her kids to the state child welfare system.
And more than once, she pleaded for someone to help her be the kind of mother she wanted to be.
“You live in a fairy tale sometimes,” she said. “And you always hope things are going to get better, but they don’t.”
But with the help of a Jackson County child advocacy agency, they eventually did.
Thursday morning, Staller will stand in front of hundreds of people in the Sheraton Crown Center ballroom at the annual Light of Hope ceremony for Court Appointed Special Advocates. She will talk about how the state removed her children from her care in 2009, how she struggled to get through hair school and how, on the day she graduated in 2012, her children were taken away again.
With a level of honesty and detail most would shy away from, Staller will tell how CASA guided her and her children to a better life, and how one agency volunteer helped her and her kids when she was at rock bottom.
“They were the light in my dark,” said Staller, 30, of Independence.
The agency typically has someone speak at its annual fundraiser who as a child was adopted and can explain what CASA and volunteers do. Or maybe an adoptive parent who gave an abused or neglected child a healthy and safe home to grow up in.
But to have a mother who lost her children not once but twice talk about how the system can work for a family?
It’s rare, CASA leaders say. But in Staller’s case, they knew she could talk about one aspect of the agency’s role they haven’t shared much because many parents would rather not expose the struggles they’ve had.
“We don’t very often tell the reunification story,” said Martha Gershun, executive director of Jackson County CASA, referring to instances in which a child taken into state care returns to live with a parent. “And half of our cases that are closed close with reunification.”
When Staller shares her story, her four children, ages 5 to 9, will be there. So will therapists and CASA workers involved in her case, which officially was released from family court in December.
Also in the audience will be former CASA volunteer Kate Beem. She advocated for Staller’s children when they were in state custody. Both times.
And more than once, Staller says, Beem provided the hope she had lost.
“I didn’t realize what she would be in my life.”
‘They wanted their mommy’
When Staller’s children initially went into state custody six years ago, Beem attended the first hearing. She explained to Staller’s parents what was happening and what her role would be.
“I think they thought I was part of the system,” said Beem, who at the time had been a CASA volunteer for four years. “Another social worker.”
Only about one-third of the child welfare cases in Jackson County receive a CASA volunteer; the agency simply doesn’t have enough volunteers to cover every case. It hopes to add 150 volunteers in the county this year.
Severe cases of abuse and neglect or cases with large sibling groups are often assigned a CASA volunteer.
For a child in state care or under state supervision, a social worker represents the state, following policies and procedures to make sure a child is safe. When there’s a guardian ad litem, that attorney represents the child in court.
CASA volunteers are more personal. They can act like a private investigator, agency officials say. They gather information about the children, where they live or may live in the future. They then give a recommendation to the judge.
Volunteers get to know a child’s teacher, maybe a counselor or coach. They meet with foster families and can supervise visits with birth families — all the while narrowing in on the child’s needs.
Beem, who had three cases before this one, was there with the family several days after the first hearing, in a conference room in the Independence Children’s Division office, when the three kids were brought in to see their mom. Staller had arrived early and told anyone she could that “I want my babies, they’re my heart.”
She remembers worrying that the workers around her hated her. “And they won’t give me my kids back.”
But she also concedes now that “up to that point, I made all the wrong decisions.”
When the boy and two girls saw Staller, they ran to her. They hadn’t seen each other in 10 days while the judge decided on a safe placement for the kids.
“My kids were on me like I hadn’t seen them in six years,” Staller said, smiling as she recalled the moment. “That’s the day CASA found the love I have with my kids.”
“They wanted their mommy,” Beem said. “I could see the bond. And I could tell she (Staller) was really torn up by what had occurred.”
‘Willing to do whatever’
One thing Staller needed to do to get her children back was progress through drug court. Because drugs were a factor in the domestic violence, she and the children’s father were assigned there.
On top of staying away from drugs, which Staller said was never an issue, she went through parenting classes.
“Nicole was willing to do whatever she needed to do,” Beem said. “She’s very smart. And you could tell Nicole, ‘You need to do x, y and z,’ and she’d go do it.”
Beem was there for the kids, monitoring their progress and making sure they were going to day care. The children, who were in their grandparents’ care, had begun to act out at times. When the oldest got angry, he’d hit his mom to get her attention. They worked through that.
The CASA volunteer also was there for Staller, answering her questions. Although a volunteer’s focus is the children, Beem and others know that helping a parent and strengthening the family ultimately helps the child.
In the fall of 2010, Staller was released from drug court and her children were put back in her legal custody. By that time, she had a fourth child, her second boy.
Beem’s job was over. She met Staller to give her a bed she no longer needed. And to say goodbye.
“I asked her, ‘Am I allowed to call you?’” Staller recalled.
“No,” Beem said. “We can’t talk again. ... But you can say hi if you see me.”
When a case is no longer in family court, a CASA’s job is done. So is, in most cases, his or her involvement with the family.
Staller says now that she felt lost back then: “I couldn’t call if I needed her.”
Getting it right
Before long, Staller’s life became overwhelming again.
Her brother died in the next year, and raising four kids on her own was tough. Her children began to act out, in some cases because of typical childhood angst and maturing.
Someone hotlined the mom for neglect.
This time, her children would go to foster care, moving from home to home, for about a year. Other than two months when the four children were able to stay at their grandparents’ house, they weren’t all together.
CASA got the call. And CASA again called Beem.
Whenever a case re-enters the system, and CASA was involved the first time, the agency is brought in the second time. And the goal is to get the same volunteer to work with the family.
“I told her, ‘I don’t want to have your kids in care a third time,” said CASA supervisor Amie Mueller. “‘This time, we are going to do it right.’”
Looking back, everyone agrees Staller would have benefited from a transitional period before her case was released from court supervision. She also could have received more help from the system dealing with domestic violence.
“I just said, ‘Clearly we didn’t get something right the first time, and we’re going to make sure we cover it this time,’” Mueller said. “‘We are going to go slow, methodical.’”
Staller remembers feeling a relief wash over her at the first court hearing. Beem was there.
“When I saw Kate, I knew everything would be OK,” Staller said. “I was like, ‘... You are here. You know what I’ve been through.’”
Staller admits she was disappointed in herself.
“I’m sorry,” she remembered telling Beem. “I don’t want to be here.”
‘In a good place’
Staller leaned in to give her youngest child, Hayden, a kiss.
Seconds later, little Lauren held up a picture for her to see, and Stella asked if she liked the color of crayon she’s using. All the while, oldest Matthew sat at her right. Quiet and supportive.
The mom took in each one of her children, moving her attention from one to the next.
It’s what she’s always wanted. It’s what she fought to regain — and keep. Family.
“I’m in a good place now,” she said.
Her case was released from family court in December.
The single mom and her four kids live in a three-bedroom house where she helps them with their homework and uses the skills she learned when she and her kids were under the state system. The children are in Scouts and want to start playing sports. Staller goes to their school activities and constantly talks with teachers and staff at school.
She’s learned to parent each child, with his or her unique personality, differently. Every day, she says, she has those little successes that let her know she and her children are going to be OK.
Parenting, she said, is like a puzzle that keeps coming up with an extra piece. “And I’m still putting it all together.”
When Mueller called to invite a school social worker to this week’s breakfast fundraiser, the social worker said: “I love that family.”
The children’s father has recently begun spending time with the kids again. He and Staller haven’t been in a relationship for years.
The three oldest, who worked with Beem for several years and became close with her, still see their former CASA volunteer. After Beem received her master’s in social work and became a therapist, she could no longer volunteer for the child advocacy agency.
She wanted to stay connected with the family. So she became a volunteer through the Inspire mentoring program in the Independence Public School District. Once a week, she goes to school and eats lunch with one of Staller’s children. She plays chess with Matthew and Lauren. With Stella, it’s typically cards. And when Hayden starts kindergarten next year, Beem hopes to start having lunch with him, too.
The family — especially Staller — is strong, Beem said.
“I see that people can change,” she said. “Nicole is probably trying a lot harder than most parents to raise children who make better choices than she did.”
Mueller looks at what Beem and Staller were able to accomplish. It’s an example, Mueller said, of how CASA cases are supposed to work.
“The two people who care most about the kids are the CASA volunteer and the parents,” Mueller said. “When it comes together the way we hope, the parent is involved, CASA is involved and they have the exact same goal. And that’s the safety of the children.”
On down the road, several years from now, Staller thinks she may want to become a volunteer. To help someone as the agency helped her. As Beem helped her.
“If you’re able to walk up to a person and say, ‘I was right where you were,’ that gives people hope that they don’t have,” Staller said. “To absolutely turn your life around.”
For more information about CASA, or to learn about volunteer opportunities, call 816-984-8208. The Light of Hope breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at the Sheraton Crown Center, 2345 McGee St.