More than a decade ago in Laredo, a young girl was sexually abused by a stranger. Her aunt, Norma Castilla-Blackwell, was outraged. Channeling her anger into a quest for justice, she successfully pushed for a sexual assault medical exam and for the perpetrator’s prosecution. Without her advocacy, Norma is sure that the man who violated her niece would have gotten away with it.
Her young niece’s fight for justice opened Norma’s eyes to the plight of other children caught up in the legal system – especially foster kids whose lives have been torn apart. She discovered a passion that would lead to a career helping children in tough circumstances, who just need an adult on their side. As a teacher, she had witnessed and reported the effects of abuse and neglect on her own students. She had seen the bruises on their skin, their frequent absences, their inability to stay awake in class. Some of them had pulled her aside to whisper their heartbreaking secrets. Too many times, she had called the state hotline to report her suspicions that a student was being abused.
And while she knew that many abused and neglected kids land in foster care, she never found out what happened to those children after she made those calls. She didn’t know if they, like many other foster kids, were juggled from home to home, school to school, courtroom to courtroom. But she knew that for many kids, foster care is a scary new world, with few familiar faces.
So Norma made a choice: She would stand up for those kids, too.
She volunteered to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate through Texas CASA in Laredo, becoming a stable figure in foster children’s tumultuous lives. Appointed to work with a specific child’s case, a CASA volunteer independently investigates each child’s situation and makes recommendations to family court judges about what is truly in the child’s best interest – whether it is returning the child to safe parents; finding relatives willing to raise them; or finding another safe, loving home through adoption. CASA also helps kids who stay in foster care get the skills and education they need to succeed as independent adults.
As a neutral voice for each abused or neglected child, Norma gathered information about the child’s daily life from family members, foster families, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers – anyone who could help her understand the child’s needs. She spent hours with each child, gaining trust. Then, she advised the court about how to best give the child a safe home and a shot at a happy life.
As a CASA volunteer, she witnessed both happy endings and heartbreak. There was the 10-year-old boy living in a bus behind a fast food place, with no restroom except the one inside the restaurant. After the child was placed in foster care, his father attempted to bring a gun and knife to a supervised visit at the CPS office.
And she’ll never forget the three kids whose parents were incarcerated for drug-related crimes. With their letters to their Dad being withheld by the jailers, he thought they wanted nothing to do with him. When he was released after five years, he finally got to read copies that had been kept by the children’s grandmother, and he was inspired to rehabilitate himself and rebuild his relationship with them. Those children thrived.
A lifetime of service
A former case manager for Communities in Schools and an executive director for the Holding Institute – a non-profit providing educational services to students on the U.S.-Mexico border – Norma has dedicated her entire career to working on behalf of children.
“I’ve been helping for a long, long time,” she says. “My passion is helping vulnerable children and animals. I love to be busy.”
After marrying and moving to Canyon Lake, Norma returned briefly to Laredo to start a new CASA office, then started looking for a way to give back in her new community. When she learned that the Central Texas CASA organization, based in New Braunfels, was looking for an executive director, she applied for – and got – the job in 2003.
“It was a bit of a culture shock, being from Mexico, moving from Laredo, and not knowing anyone,” she says. “But I was welcomed by the community, and now I’ve been here for 13 years. And I love my job. I always say that although don’t have kids, I really have 482 kids.”
It’s a job that’s only growing more demanding, as the need for CASA services is growing in Central Texas.
“Back when I started in 2003, we had 66 volunteers and five staff members,” she says. “Today, we have more than 250 volunteers and 21 staff members – and we urgently need more. We see the number of children increase by 10 percent every year. A lot of people are moving to the area, and more kids are coming into the system.”
A heart for kids and animals
CASA of Central Texas serves children in Hays, Comal, Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, and is currently building a new office in San Marcos. Norma was recently appointed to represent the area on a national CASA committee seeking new resources and strategies to better serve children in suburban areas.
Her job is a big responsibility, but Norma’s heart is even bigger. In addition to her award-winning work with CASA, she has graduated from the Comal County Citizen Sheriff’s Academy and Leadership New Braunfels, is a member of the Rotary Club of New Braunfels, and currently serves on the Christus Santa Rosa Hospital – New Braunfels Civic Advisory Board.
“I’ve always loved animals,” she says. “Dogs are my passion, too.”
So she found a way to bring her two passions together.
For more than a year, she has been a board member of Canyon Lake Animal Shelter Society, or CLASS, and of Canine Classmates, a non-profit that encourages and improves literacy and socialization skills for struggling and at-risk pre-K through 5th grade students by pairing them with mentors and trained service dogs.
“I decided to get involved with Classmates because a lot of CASA kids move from placement to placement, and every time they move from school to school, they lose half a year of education,” she says. “In this program, we have a service dog named Dante, and the kids read to him. It is important not only for them to learn how to read, but to raise their self-esteem.”
Dante also participates in adoption days, joining kids and families in court.
Having dedicated both her free time and career to helping children and animals, Norma wants others to know that they, too, can make a difference.
“You can volunteer as a CASA advocate and help children in your own county,” Norma says. “Our volunteers are currently serving more than 400 kids, but there are hundreds of children in our area who don’t have a CASA advocate. It is the fate of these children that haunt our dreams. We are doing amazing work, but we have a lot more work to do.”