Behind the podium at the Light of Hope ceremony — a vigil held April 2, remembering children who have died as a result of child abuse — stood a handsome gentleman dressed in blue.
The man’s eyes scanned the crowd as various dignitaries spoke, young Stephen Lopez sang the national anthem, and announcements were made. The audience grew silent when the man in blue finally stepped forward and introduced himself as 33-year-old Ray Gutierrez, former foster child and survivor of years of abuse and neglect.
Every year, the state of Texas removes thousands of children from their homes because of abuse and neglect. These victimized children are placed into an already overburdened child welfare system that is charged with addressing every child’s individual needs. As part of this process, the children are sent to court where judges weigh all the evidence to make important decisions that impact the children’s lives.
Ray Gutierrez, who is originally from New York, spent the first three years of his life being moved among five temporary foster homes, after which his birth mother surrendered him permanently to the state. “At age five, I was placed in an adoptive home, which was a horrible nightmare,” Gutierrez said. “I bear scars on both hands as a daily reminder of the beatings I suffered.”
It was difficult to listen as Gutierrez explained how his adoptive parents beat him so badly with an extension cord that he couldn’t stand for two weeks, how they tried to drown him in a tub of water to “toughen him up,” and how they made him stand out in the New York winter cold without a jacket to punish him for bed-wetting until he was almost dead — sick with pneumonia.
“I was frequently beaten for trivial things, alternately starved and forced to stand up for long periods of time with my arms straight out in the crucifix position as a form of punishment,” Gutierrez said.
Child abuse statistics are astounding and touch us all in some way. “Every responsible person will agree that one abused child is too many,” Governor Rick Perry proclaimed at a press release announcing the month of April as Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. “Yet our state’s child protection caseloads are evidence of the shameful fact that child abuse is a widespread issue in Texas.”
“It is my hope and prayer that you’ll get involved,” Gutierrez said. “Some of you here are foster parents and are doing an excellent job. I’m not here to disparage the foster care system at all, but I’m here to share my experience and explain why the system unfortunately fails some children and what can be done about the senseless abuse cases out there.”
Tom Rinehart was in the audience and spoke afterward about his role as a CASA Advocate (Court Appointed Special Advocate). “We are the voice of the child who cannot speak for him or herself,” Rinehart said.
A CASA volunteer is appointed by a judge to provide factual information on behalf of a child caught in a difficult legal process. And, in a court system challenged by increasing caseloads, a CASA volunteer can make the single greatest difference in the life of a child.
“Now, the social worker visited me but had no idea what was going on,” Gutierrez said. “All he knew was what my adoptive parents told him and that I was ‘acting out’ like any normal kid. I didn’t understand the concept of speaking out, and I never told anyone what was happening for fear the punishment would just get worse.”
Sadly, in 2008 more than 200 children died in Texas from abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents, guardians or caregivers. More than 14,000 children had to be removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.
“We are an independent voice to help children,” CASA volunteer Rinehart said with tears welling up in his eyes. “The first case I had probably did more for me than it did for them. It is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
CASA volunteers do not need to be lawyers or social workers. To be a volunteer, one needs to be over 21 years old, be able to interview teachers, relatives and others involved with the children, be able to remain objective, have good communication skills, and be willing to undergo a background check.
“Everyone has 10 hours a month,” Rinehart said. “They ask us to work 10 hours a month on a case. People who have other jobs can volunteer their time in the evenings or on weekends.”
CASA volunteers are given support, guidance, tools, and training from professionals in the field to help work effectively within the child welfare system.
“There is a one-week daytime training session or two-week evening training sessions,” Rinehart said, “and then volunteers go to court and observe before being sworn in by the judge.”
Once sworn in as a child advocate by a judge, volunteers are given support and guidance by professional staff as they search for information on what is in the child’s best interest. Volunteers review cases, gather new data and become familiar with the child’s background. Then they develop a report that is shared in the courtroom and will be considered by the judge in making decisions regarding the child.
When there is a CASA advocate on the case, the judge is afforded a comprehensive picture of the child’s situation, needs, and best potential outcomes. CASA volunteers are frequently the most consistent adult in the lives of children while involved in the child welfare system. The volunteers help guide abused and neglected children toward safe, loving permanent families.
Guest Speaker Ray Gutierrez’s ordeal didn’t end until he literally ‘aged out’ of the system at 21. “Life just got worse for me as a kid,” Gutierrez said. “It was an unholy nightmare, yet I’m not here to rail against the system and tell you I’m angry or bitter. I am here to tell you there is hope if we all get involved.”
Noted speaker on behalf of abused children, Ray Gutierrez now lives in San Antonio and teaches eighth-grade English. “As I mentioned earlier, I am a teacher now with four certifications, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a master’s degree in international relations, and I am working on a law degree.”
The degrees and accolades did not come without tremendous effort and hardship. According to Gutierrez, it all came with enough self-awareness to get counseling and find a way out of a situation that would have killed most.
“I couldn’t let the system beat me down and keep me down,” Gutierrez said. “If someone had only stepped in and helped identify the abuse and neglect. If someone had only figured out that I wasn’t acting normal or had reported that there was a child who was not dressed appropriately, maybe intervention could have saved me so much pain. Maybe intervention could have saved the lives lost to these children we are remembering tonight.”
“I have truly seen the pain that these crimes leave behind,” Andres Almaguer, of the district attorney’s office, said. “Just today, for example, a mother of a 14-day-old child was in my court, the 92-district court, and pleaded guilty to repeatedly stabbing her child to death. What a senseless killing this was. We’re here to remember these children who have been senselessly lost, like many others…. We need to stop this abuse of these helpless children. That’s why we’re here.”
In memory of the lost children, Ray Gutierrez set several doves free from a cage placed near the podium. A bell was then rung in memory of each child, and a tree with white lights was lit by Judge Ricardo Flores.
To find out more about becoming a CASA volunteer, call Hidalgo County Volunteer Coordinator Ruth Garcia at 956- 381-HOLD (4653), 1-877-894-2272, or visit www.TexasCasa.org