AND DAYNA WORCHEL
As of last week, the odometer had just crossed 150,000 miles.
In a few months, it's going to need another set of tires.
“I stay pretty busy,” she said unapologetically.
November is recognized as National Adoption Month, but many people like Mrs. Maynard have made it their life's mission to protect society's most helpless residents.
She represents the legal interests of children in the care of Child Protective Services and likely could make a lot more money in estate planning, but she said this job is her calling.
“It can be really hard sometimes,” she said. “I think if you get to the point where things don't bother you,it's time to do something else.”
On any given day, Mrs. Maynard, a mother of three, is in court and on the road, visiting foster homes in Smith County and beyond to check up on mistreated youngsters she refers to as “my kids.”
It's a difficult job that's growing tougher by the day.
“I think the economy has been so bad for so long, people are just hanging on,” she said. “They get frustrated and they take it out on the kids.”
Consequently, there are simply not enough caring foster homes to go around, officials said.
The chronic shortage of temporary caregivers in Smith County means abused and neglected youngsters are being placed in other cities, some as far away as San Antonio.
Mrs. Maynard said she's noticed something else about the heart-breaking situations — they seem to be growing more violent.
A few years ago, most of the children were removed due to their parents' methamphetamine use, but that trend seems to be changing, she said.
“Now it's just plain old-fashioned abuse,” she said.
In the last two months, for example, Smith County courts dealt with a series of high-profile cases that center on violence against children, instances in which they were scalded, sexually assaulted and beaten.
On Halloween, a child was allegedly kidnapped by his non-custodial father, who was accused of killing his ex-wife.
And recently, the jailed parents of a toddler found dead in the family septic tank were in court to face charges of child endangerment. The couple's other children remain in foster care.
Also, Simon Lopez pleaded guilty to the 2010 capital murder of his girlfriend's son on Nov. 16.
Officials said these high-profile cases represent only a fraction of the real numbers, and there is a desperate scramble under way to recruit more people willing to foster, adopt and advocate for children.
“There are success stories and we hold onto those,” Mrs. Maynard said. “That's why we need good foster homes. They (children) need a safe, loving home.”
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is on the front lines of those efforts.
When there is an absence of family support, the agency petitions the court for temporary managing conservatorship, and the child is placed in foster care as officials search for a stable place for them to land.
“Child Protective Services will continue to look for appropriate relatives to care for the child during their open investigation,” Shari Pulliam, an agency spokeswoman, said.
Foster families are carefully chosen, based on the youngster's needs, and then briefed on what the child has experienced.
Families providing this type of individualized care are specially trained, completing education classes so they can help children cope.
“During this training, they are taught how to deal with children who have experienced tragedies and losses in their lives,” Ms. Pulliam said.
Youngsters in foster care also can receive counseling from licensed providers specializing in grief and psychological care.
After any traumatic event, the most important thing is for a child to feel safe and have his voice heard, said Brenda McBride, a licensed clinical social worker for East Texas Behavioral Health Center.
Most communities have a Child Advocacy Center, which provides counseling to youngsters in a child-friendly environment.
Therapy provides tangible healing for children and their families, and it is a very important part of the healing process, Ms. Pulliam said.
Ms. McBride agreed.
“Connect with a child by meeting them where they are,” she said. “Look into their eyes … if they are with a connected adult, they heal much quicker.”
ONE FAMILY'S STORY
“This is a ministry for us,” Mrs. Simmons said. “We absolutely love it.”
The couple, who has two biological and two adopted children, provide foster care on the belief that youngsters need and deserve a safe and loving environment in which to grow.
Their involvement started about eight years ago as street ministry and grew after discovering the need to place mistreated children into good homes.
They began working with Smith County's family court system and the private agency, Living Alternatives, to foster abused youngsters and help prepare them for a better chapter in their lives.
There seem to be good days and those that are not as rosy as children begin adjusting to their new environment.
Some youngsters will fib, hoard food and throw temper tantrums as they transition into a new reality that centers on God, family and school, Mrs. Simmons said.
“We, as a family, pray together before we get a child,” she said. “We do this as a team effort and we operate as a team … we feel totally called to do what we do.”
They do not accept infants, only older children who can be harder to place.
Two siblings are the latest to find respite in their home.
“It's all worth it when you see them smile and laugh,” she said. “Personally, we really get excited when we see how God restores them … We are thankful to be a part of it.”
“Attorney ad-litems, Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteers, local judges and many others work closely together to make sure that children get all of the support and services they need to recover,” Ms. Pulliam said.
The Children's Advocacy Center of Smith County serves victims of physical and sexual abuse by helping reduce the trauma of the criminal justice system.
The organization achieves its mission through unified efforts in counseling, investigations and prosecutions, officials said.
Brenda Sanchez, a community educator with the Children's Advocacy Center of Smith County, said children impacted by trauma or tragedy experience a type of post-traumatic stress.
She visits schools, day care centers and churches to help educate caregivers on their important role in the process.
Some of the most successful strategies center on art, play and animal-assisted therapies, mixed with an abundance of patience and support, child experts said.
“The dog helps the child to calm down and first share with a dog what happened to them — then they are better able to share with the therapist,” Ms. Sanchez said of the positives of animal therapy.
In Smith County, people who used Children's Advocacy Center services when they were children can receive free therapy as adults, Ms. Sanchez said.
Another safety net is Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nonprofit that strives to prevent children from falling through the cracks of the state's overburdened child welfare system.
The organization trains volunteer advocates to serve children involved in the family court system due to abuse or neglect, serving as the eyes, ears, and arms of the court to help facilitate the best interests of the child.
About 100 volunteers oversee about 540 children in Wood, Smith and Van Zandt counties, Executive Director Patty Garner said.
In 2011, the organization was serving 484 children with 127 volunteers.
Since September, the group already has served 383 children, records show.
The organization is in desperate need of volunteers, she said.
“There are 100 children right now waiting on a CASA volunteer, that's 100 waiting on someone to be their advocate,” Ms. Garner said. “That, to me, is simply not acceptable. We're working all the time to recruit volunteers.”
Retired educators Bill and Janee McGoff are among the enlistees.
It's realistic to say the couple's schedule became busier since giving up their day jobs and starting a second chapter as agency volunteers.
On any given week, they visit children's schools to eat lunch with them, attend their school functions and go to court with them.
McGoff said they have no plans to retire again.
“I guess you could say we are like surrogate grandparents,” he said. “There are a lot of problems out there and CASA needs volunteers … There are a lot of children in the system who need help. I would encourage people to get involved.”
Staff writer Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is no relation to Jan and Brady Simmons.