On a typical day, nine year old Alisha and her seven year old sister, Hannah, can be found rehearsing for their upcoming dance recitals, working on school science projects or attending Girl Scout meetings. They participate in their grandmother’s garden club and serve food after church on Sundays. They are bright and bubbly little girls, but less than five years ago their lives looked much different.
Alisha and Hannah’s parents loved them dearly, but the struggle within their own relationship caused their home to be unstable, confusing and often very aggressive. A history of domestic violence, aggressions in the home and general instability caused them to move around a lot. To make matters more confusing for the girls, their mom and dad would often separate and then reconcile. The girls were often found with little stability in their life.
At one point, the tension between their parents escalated so much that Child Protective Services (CPS) stepped in because there was fear that the girls’ wellbeing was being compromised. Alisha and Hannah moved in with their maternal grandmother, Gretchen. It was then that Pamela Fazzone walked into the girls’ lives.
Pamela had just finished her 30 hours of training and was soon assigned by a Harris County judge to Alisha and Hannah’s case. She was now their court appointed advocate and was ready to help the girls find the best possible home. Pamela began making phone calls, reading case files and learning everything she could about the family she would support and help for the next few years.
“This was her first case; she just immediately knew what she should be doing,” said Amie Binkley, Pamela’s advocacy coordinator, “She combed through all the records, made timelines, contact sheets, went through documents to see what services had been completed and got old case files from the CPS caseworker. She was able to piece everything together because she had all the history.”
One day, while Pamela was visiting with the girls at daycare, Alisha, who was two years old at the time, realized that Pamela was going to be a frequent visitor. “I remember Alisha holding her hand at daycare while walking down the hall, and my little girl asked her if she was her friend,” said Gretchen, “Pamela told her yes and explained she would be around a lot looking out for her and her sister. I knew Pamela cared for their wellbeing.”
Though she was very young, Alisha showed a lot of aggressive behavior toward her sister. “Alisha communicated with her sister in a physical way,“ Pamela recalled, “I think it was Alisha’s instinct. That’s what she saw.” This behavior changed and improved throughout the course of their case. Pamela was able to recommend therapy for the girls, as well as, monitor their interactions with each other and with the family while she worked toward a permanent outcome for the girls. Pamela credits the success of the therapy sessions to Gretchen and her willingness to allow a professional to craft a treatment plan that altered how troubled behavior was approached. That plan helped both the girls and their grandparents communicate more effectively with one another.
Throughout the duration of the case, Pamela not only served as a constant support to Alisha and Hannah, but to all parties on the girls’ case. Pamela’s knowledge of the details served as a constant reference and guide to their mother, Gretchen, attorneys, caseworkers and therapist. As their court appointed advocate, she was able to make sure the girls found their way out of a storm and into the stable and safe life they deserved.
“Gretchen called me frequently to share details of the girls’ experiences and behaviors at daycare, school, home, during therapy sessions, and sometimes she would update me while we watched the girls at dance lessons,” Pamela said, “She also asked many questions regarding the CPS process and more specifically about what she might expect prior to each court hearing. I always tried to keep the grandparents well informed, so they could form and discuss questions, and so they could better prepare for what might happen next.”
“I felt confidence, even though I didn’t know what was on going on,” said Gretchen,“ without someone like Pamela, being an anchor in the storm, I don’t know how I would have gotten through almost three years of the most horrible time of my life.”
Alisha and Hannah’s parents eventually completed the court’s requested services, but were still unable to provide a safe and stable home. Pamela urged all parties to consider it more than the “tasks” they were asked to complete, and to focus on the “goals” that they had not been able to meet. By visiting each of the many homes the girls’ parents had lived in over the course of the case, Pamela was able to document a continued pattern of instability. The girls needed a safe, predictable place to overcome what they had been through.
Ultimately, the case concluded with a trial that granted permanent custody of the girls to their maternal grandparents. Through Pamela’s thorough research and recommendations to the court, Alisha and Hannah were able to find a sense of security and stability with their difficult behaviors subsiding. Gretchen is adamant that Pamela’s influence throughout the case was a critical component of reaching this outcome.
“It took a long time to see a new normal for them, but Pamela played a key role in helping them to have normalcy,” Gretchen said, “Nobody can go in there better than a child advocate that knows the story, hears about what happened to the child, or meets the child when the abuse first happened. They piece the story together, as broken as it is, and get to the heart of what is going on.”
Pamela now looks back on her first case and understands the importance of the work she does as an advocate. “Nearly seven years later, and even with my current case involving a large sibling group, I cannot imagine not taking the next case for fear a child won’t have the advantage of an advocate during such a critical time in his/her life. I believe that all children in custody are at risk of being lost in the system, and an advocate helps better their chances at breaking the cycle of abuse, and helps them find a safe and healthy path to their future,” said Pamela.
Today, Gretchen still credits much of the girls happiness to the positive influence Pamela made in their lives. Each Christmas Gretchen sends a card, photos and an update on the girls. This last card contained a heartfelt message, “I hope you see [the girls’] successfulness is because of your dedicated efforts to help achieve the best possible life. The children are thriving and becoming responsible young ladies. I will always appreciate you. When life was feeling empty of joy, you were like a ray of light… your love for children and their needs in life was like a gift to the world. A gift that ensures good chances of successful lives to make the world a better place.”
It’s because of Pamela, and other volunteers like her, that Alisha, Hannah and other abused and neglected children in Houston are able to find new futures and live out their childhood away from potential storms.