Caring for Kids

At the age of 12, Abe O’Bryan was practically raising his three younger siblings on his own, getting the two girls up and off to school and taking his baby brother down the street to a neighbor’s before heading to school himself.

Their fathers were deceased and mother was who-knows-where. Using and dealing drugs, it was not unusual for her to be gone for days at a time.

Photo courtesy of Abe O'Bryan.

Photo courtesy of Abe O’Bryan.

Too often, stories like O’Bryan’s end badly, but thanks to Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and its army of volunteers, his story is a happy one.

Who is CASA?

Each year, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) helps thousands of children who have been removed from their homes or are at risk of being removed.

Volunteer advocates, who provide family court judges with observations and recommendations on social services and placements for abused and neglected children, have only one case each and follow their child(ren) until they are placed in loving permanent homes.

“We believe children need at least one caring, consistent adult to look out for their safety and nurture their self-worth,” states their website.

Nationally, over 2 million children have been served since the program was founded in 1977. CASA of the River Region serves children in Jefferson, Henry, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer and Trimble counties. There are also CASA programs in Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties in Indiana.

A Success Story

O’Bryan is from New Haven, Kentucky. “From the time I was born, my father grew and sold marijuana,” he shares. “He was very good at it, very successful. Made a lot of money at it.”

His parents met when his mother was 16. At age 17, she was pregnant with O’Bryan and they married. The marriage lasted 10 years and produced two younger sisters for O’Bryan.

His father’s family had a long history of skirting the law. “My grandfathers were moonshiners during Prohibition,” he says.

“At some point, mom wanted him to stop what he was doing. People around her were going to prison, getting hurt. That wasn’t the life she wanted for her kids. She left and we ran away to Florida when I was 7 years old.”

O’Bryan had no idea about his father’s activities. “My dad was my hero,” he says. “He was Mister Fun. My aunts say he was Peter Pan. It was very confusing as a child.”

The family stayed in Tampa for a year and his father came down and found them, reconciling with his wife and promising a fresh start and clean living. But it was not to be.

He started dealing again, and O’Bryan’s mother packed the kids up in the middle of the night and fled back to Kentucky. “Mom and Dad separated. Then Mom met another man and had a kid by him – my half brother.”

In May of 1990, his half-brother’s father was killed in a car accident. In August, they learned that his father had been killed. “My mom was 28 with four kids. In the last four months, the fathers of all her kids have died, and she has no high school diploma.

“The money she was making just wasn’t enough,” he says. “She knew she could make easy money and she succumbed to that.” She ended up with addiction problems.

O’Bryan and his siblings were left with a string of babysitters. “She was gone a lot. It’s hard to keep a sitter when you don’t show up to pick up your kids. Eventually, it got put on me.”

“The most common way kids come to the attention of Child Protective Services is through missing school,” he explains. “CPS gets involved and the judge determines if they need an extra set of eyes.”

With O’Bryan dutifully fulfilling his role as caregiver and getting everyone to school, no alarm was raised for the young family.

“It was a small town though. People talked,” he relates. When one of his aunts realized what was going on, she called CPS, but with a massive caseload, the young family never received a visit to check up on them.

His father’s family went to court and asked for custody. But with no evidence, the request was denied. “We were assigned a social worker, but I don’t remember any coming to the house,” he says. The aunt made another call – this time to CASA who sent a volunteer out right away.

“Not every request gets fulfilled,” O’Bryan describes. “There are not enough volunteers. We were lucky. That volunteer did come to the house – did come to the school. They did everything a CASA volunteer is supposed to do.”

The judge removed them from their mother’s custody and they finished out the school year living with their maternal grandmother before spending an additional four months with their father’s sister and her husband in Louisville. His young brother, meanwhile, went to live with relatives of his father. “That separation was really tough,” O’Bryan recounts.

The judge also ordered O’Bryan’s mother into a drug rehab program. “My mom got treatment, which is important.” The children were returned to her custody under order that she live with her mother for one year and submit to random drug screenings.

“I don’t think my mother and father were bad people,” he says. “They were young and they tried really hard.”

O’Bryan dropped out of high school during his senior year at age 18, got his GED and joined the Navy in 2000.

By 2007, he was living in Virginia. “I was never coming back to Kentucky,” he says. But his mother was diagnosed with throat cancer and he moved to Bardstown to be near her. His mother soon went into remission and O’Bryan attended Jefferson Community College and then UofL through the UPS employee Tuition Assistance Program.

While studying at UofL in 2010, O’Bryan, now 36, started working at CASA of the River Region, recruiting volunteers, fundraising and ultimately serving as a director of volunteers.

“They asked me to speak at a breakfast,” he shares. “Then they asked me to do it again. Then I did it at a state function. The director asked me to go to D.C. to speak to senators and congressmen about the benefits of CASA because they were seeking federal funding.”

While there, he met Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis. “His story was surprisingly similar to mine,” he says. “It was inspiring.”

Photo by Ryan Noltemeyer.

Photo by Ryan Noltemeyer.

A Volunteer

Bart Greenwald, 51, first got involved with CASA of the River Region as a law student at the University of Louisville in the early 1990s.

“I was in the first UofL Law School class with a five-hour requirement of pro bono or volunteer time,” he says.  “We had several programs as options. I heard about CASA and knew that was what I’d like to do.”

As a volunteer, his first case was a little girl named Ashley. “I eventually also took on her brother, Hank.” He stayed with them for seven years. “That’s unusual for CASA. Most of the time, it’s only one year. The goal is to get the children back with their parents or in a permanent home, but their situation was rough.”

After graduating, Greenwald joined the CASA board while still serving as a volunteer. He served on the board for 10 years and was its president in 2002.

Greenwald worked at Frost Brown Todd, LLC for 21 years before branching out to open Duncan Galloway Egan Greenwald, PLLC in January of this year. “I had a great experience there, but I was ready to try something new.”

A Happy Meeting

“You never leave CASA,” Greenwald says. “I go to the breakfast every year. I donate. They call me for legal advice now and then.

“Abe [O’Bryan] came to speak at the annual Embrace a Child breakfast in 2007. I was really impressed with him.”

Greenwald gave O’Bryan his card and asked him if he’d like to go to lunch sometime. “He took me up on it and we met for lunch regularly.” One of the things they discussed was O’Bryan’s plan to attend law school.

O’Bryan pursued a law degree at UofL and earlier this year asked Greenwald if he knew any law firms that were hiring. He was immediately invited in to take on a temporary job reviewing documents.

“He really impressed me. He was so thorough,” Greenwald remembers. Unsurprisingly, O’Bryan started looking for a permanent position. “He really wanted to do business litigation and his wife is going to have a baby and he needed a job. So I hired him.”

O’Bryan has been with the firm for three months. He and Greenwald are the only business litigators in the 12-attorney firm.

“One of the most important things CASA does for kids – the volunteers have the power to tell judges what’s really going on,” he says. “If you’re really, really lucky like me and my sisters, you end up with people who can show you a different style of life. Breaking the cycle of dysfunction, getting kids to realize that there is something different; I got to see that that wasn’t exactly normal.”

“CASA builds strong children,” he adds. “Frederick Douglass said, ‘It’s far easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ That is so true.”

“CASA gave you the chance, and I am reaping the benefits of it,” jokes Greenwald. Replies O’Bryan, “So am I! Believe me.” VT