Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Bowie woman helps foster children

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Sherryl Hatcher left an executive job to work at a non-profit that advocates on behalf of foster children.
A little bit of caring makes a lot of difference, says Sherryl Hatcher, a Court Appointed Special Advocate. As a CASA volunteer, Hatcher has seen how youth in the foster care system blossom and bloom when they receive attention and support from a concerned adult.

Hatcher, who lives in Bowie, began working with CASA of Prince George’s County last year because she was looking for a meaningful career.

‘‘I felt like I wasn’t doing anything to benefit people in need,” said Hatcher, who also serves as outreach director for CASA. After much thought and prayer, she resigned from her job as an executive in an international consulting firm. Shortly thereafter, an attorney friend suggested she get in touch with CASA, a national nonprofit that works with local juvenile courts.

Although youth in the foster care system get assistance from lawyers, judges, teachers and social workers, CASA volunteers play a special role.

‘‘The court might only see a young person every six months,” Hatcher said. ‘‘Social workers have heavy case loads, so that can’t always get personally involved with young people.”

CASA volunteers, on the other hand, work with just one child, serving as an advocate and committing at least 10 hours a month to that child.

CASA volunteers talk to teachers and relatives, and judges often respond to their recommendations. Further, they’re more inclined to make suggestions that are in the best interest of the child, Hatcher said.

‘‘A lawyer is supposed to promote the child’s wishes,” Hatcher said. ‘‘It’s silly to think that a 12-year-old would know how to run his or her own life.”

As an advocate for a teenage boy, Hatcher says she was shocked to learn about his experiences.

‘‘Before becoming a volunteer I had no idea how many young people were in foster care,” she said. ‘‘I didn’t know about the abuse or neglect some had experienced.”

About 600 children are in foster care in Prince George’s County, she said.

On average, children spend about 33 months in foster care before finding a permanent placement. During that time, CASA volunteers make sure children receive medical and dental care, therapy or other services. They can recognize learning disabilities or watch for signs of abuse.

Because teens might be less likely to get adopted, CASA volunteers help them set and develop plans to reach important goals and become productive citizens. The teen that Hatcher worked with was receptive to her advice. ‘‘He’s a sweet young man who wanted to accomplish things in life but he had no one to help him figure things out,” she said.

Hatcher’s mom, Louise, who is also a CASA volunteer, assisted a teenage girl who often ran away from home and displayed a poor attitude. Eventually, the girl’s behavior and her grades improved.

‘‘The courts credited my mom with the change in the girl’s attitude,” Hatcher said. ‘‘My mom found the experience rewarding. She felt really proud.”

Although Hatcher’s mom has a background in nursing, CASA doesn’t require specific career experience for volunteers. However, volunteers must make sure they have time to commit to a child.

‘‘You need to be consistent and persistent,” Hatcher said. ‘‘When a child calls, you can’t say that you’re too busy.”

Prospective volunteers undergo 37 hours of training. Because of the large number of young people in foster care, CASA seeks more volunteers, particularly men.

‘‘More than 50 percent of the kids in foster care are boys, but only 9 percent of the volunteers are men,” Hatcher said.

Hatcher says volunteering has changed the course of her life. Not only is she helping others, but she also has learned a few things as well.

‘‘Volunteering has taught me a lot about not being judgmental,” she said. ‘‘You realize that every life counts. The person you are helping could go out and help 10 others.”

Sherryl Hatcher

How she makes a difference: Hatcher is a volunteer and outreach director for Court Appointed Special Advocate of Prince George’s County. The organization seeks volunteers to support abused and neglected children. Call 301-209-0491.