2018 CASA of the year
January 23rd 2019, Polk County Itemizer
DALLAS — Terry Kissane has seen what began as horror stories of child abuse and neglect end with those same children happy and healthy.
Kissane, 77, has been a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) for almost eight years, four of those with CASA of Polk County. In December, he was named the 2018 CASA of the Year for Polk County.
CASAs are volunteers who are assigned to the cases of children in foster care. They advocate for the child in court and oversee a child’s living situation and education. They have the authority to question those involved in a case and make recommendations to the court on behalf of children.
Katey Axtell, Polk County CASA’s executive director, said Kissane pours his heart into each of his cases. In his four years, he’s taken on 10 cases involving 14 children.
“A CASA can basically take one to two cases. If (they) sign a waiver and want to take on another case, they can take up to five. He’s carrying four cases now,” Axtell said. “He goes above and beyond for this program. I don’t think he’s ever told me no.
“I will tell you, he advocates for these kids.”
Kissane is a retired lawyer, serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a federal prosecutor before opening a private practice.
Mike Barnett, CASA Polk County’s program and volunteer manager, said Kissane’s experience in the courtroom makes him effective in his role as a CASA.
“When I watch Terry in court, it’s a whole new level to some of these attorneys who are around here, because he brings a dynamic to the courtroom that I’ve rarely seen in 40 years of law enforcement and CASA together,” Barnett said. “He lights it up.”
Kissane said he became a CASA while living in Washington. He was looking for a way to give back to his community and saw an advertisement for a CASA program there.
“I saw the advertisement that struck a chord. Children need help. Our most vulnerable are being taken advantage of, those least capable of protecting themselves,” Kissane said. “I said that sounds like a fit.”
In his time as a CASA, he’s worked on cases in which children were victims of neglect from drug-addicted parents or victims of abuse that resulted in critical injuries and lengthy recoveries.
“My very first case was my most memorable — still is,” he said. “A little baby girl about 2 months old. She was born in a rehab facility and the mother was released.”
Soon, the mother returned to rehab for almost a year.
“The baby was reunited with mom after her release, but mom had some issues that made her an unsafe person to be caring for that baby,” he said.
The baby, now 8 years old, was eventually adopted, and is one of the heartwarming stories of success that CASAs can be a part of, Kissane said.
“She’s a beautiful girl — happy, healthy, active, talented,” he said.
Kissane said witnessing positive outcomes is worth the struggle to get there, and that is what he would tell anyone considering becoming a CASA.
“The rewards are magnificent,” he said. “The personal satisfaction and gratification are worth every moment you spend in the program.”
He likened it to a car accident, except the damage to the victims isn’t just physical; it’s emotional as well.
“There are emotional bodies lying all over the place,” he said. “They inspire me to stand in there and hold the line.”
Barnett and Axtell managed to keep his CASA of the Year award a secret until the night of the award dinner in December. Kissane said he was surprised to see all of his children there.
“I asked, ‘What are you guys doing here?’” Kissane said. “They said, ‘You come to all of our events and support us, so we thought we would come support you.’”
When presenter Barnett started describing his accomplishments, Kissane realized he was talking about him.
“It was a complete surprise,” he said.
Barnett said Polk County’s program has made significant strides in the last several years. Kissane, who has served on the organization’s board and executive committee in addition to volunteering as a CASA, has contributed to that growth, he said.
“He does so much for us. He really does,” Barnett said. “Having players like that on your team, that has a habit of raising the bar.”