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Couple strives to protect the rights of abused and neglected children in the court system

Dedication. Heart. Tenacity.

Words like these come to mind when reflecting on Joe and Debi Bradway of Lake Oswego's joint 23-year tenure as court appointed special advocates (CASAs) for CASA of Clackamas County.

It all started when Debi decided to attend a CASA 101 orientation meeting in Oregon City — and Joe decided to come along because it sounded interesting.

What they found was their new labor of love — advocating for abused and neglected children in Clackamas County's court system.

CASAs are community volunteers who advocate for the best interests of kids who are in foster care. Between Joe and Debi, they have advocated for 59 vulnerable children in the foster care system.

Many CASAs become volunteers because they have both a deep commitment to their community and because they want to help provide a voice for the most vulnerable.

"When you're retired, you like to use your time productively," Joe says. "It's a way to get involved very early in a person's life. If you steer a ship as it's just starting its voyage, it makes a huge difference."

CASAs are not permanent fixtures in children's lives. They come into the picture to help steer their ships to calmer seas, and then into a safe port.

"We don't stay in their lives. We make course corrections and then move on," Joe says.

CASA work is intensely gratifying, the Bradways say, because CASAs' advocacy for the most vulnerable children literally does change lives.

"A CASA figures out what is in the best interest of the child or children ... and then goes to court and advocates for that," Joe says. "It's unbelievably rewarding work.

"The little changes that you make now amplify in the child's life over time," he adds. "If we make a change in the life of a child who's 11 or 12 years old, how big will that change be when they're 25 or 30? Enormous. We're leveraging the benefits of what we do by how early we are involved in the process."

Debi was a school principal who saw firsthand the difference that CASAs made in the lives of kids who have disciplinary or developmental issues.

"The more that I found out about the program, the more I was enticed," she says. "You talk to all of the parties involved — parents, foster parents, schools, doctors, etc. — to get a picture of the child's life and needs and make recommendations to the judge about the best path for them."

A veteran of the local juvenile dependency court, Debi says she has seen some disturbing trends.

"Over the past 23 years, I have taken on maybe 25 cases," she says. "What I have seen over the years is that parents have more problems with drugs — mostly meth (amphetamine) — and mental health issues. Those things impair their ability to be successful parents."

SUBMITTED PHOTO  - Lake Oswegan Debi Bradway and her husband Joe have been court appointed special advocates (CASAs) for Clackamas County for 23 years.Despite the difficulty of seeing children so negatively affected by their parents' addictions and personal struggles, Debi remains steadfast, her work guided by the organization's mission: To provide a voice in court and advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the foster care system who need safe and permanent homes.

"There are times when you really have to be a strong, subtle, positive, but forceful voice," says Debi. "To be a good CASA you have to know your boundaries. If you're there for a personal mission you're not going to be a good CASA. You're there to help with that child's issues and help them move on to have a positive life and to be successful."

CASA of Clackamas County is always looking for people like the Bradways who want to become a voice for a child in foster care and help to change their life. The agency provides extensive training and support. For more information about volunteering or making a donation, contact the CASA office at 503-723-0521 or visit www.www.casa-cc.org.

Katherine Gorell is the development director for CASA of Clackamas County.

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