Two months after Karen Hilborn became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, she received a case involving a 10-month-old girl.
She met the child at Memorial Hospital, where the little girl was being treated for a hematoma on the brain and a broken leg. The child’s injuries were the result of re-abuse by one of her parents. Hilborn wanted to be there for her.
Back then, Hilborn could not have foreseen that the little girl would be among the first of nearly 50 children that she would help as a volunteer during her 20 years with CASA of the Pikes Peak Region. Many of her cases would last three to five years. Despite the long hours and the commitment, Hilborn has never in her 20 years as a volunteer quit a single case.
That little girl that she met at Memorial still holds a very special place in her heart. When they first met, the little girl would cry continuously every time she saw her parents during court-ordered visits.
“She was only 10 months old, but she had an opinion,” Hilborn said.
On visit after visit, Hilborn would sit on the floor, in a circle with the child’s parents, and encourage the child to crawl over to see her mommy and daddy. She knew the court-ordered visits had to take place and wanted the baby to know that she would be safe.
Eventually, the child would allow her mother to hold her, but Hilborn noticed that through all of it, the baby never smiled.
Four years later, when the girl went to kindergarten, Hilborn was still on the case. One day the little girl, who lived with foster-adopt parents who would eventually adopt her, asked Hilborn to go to school with her for Show and Tell day. The other kids brought dolls and dinosaurs, but the little girl had something even more special to show. She marched Hilborn to the front of the class.
“This is my CASA!” she said.
The kindergartners did not know what that meant, but they knew it was good. They could tell by their classmate’s giant smile.
Hilborn has always loved kids.
She was the sixth-grader who always went across the playground to play with the first-graders. She was the volunteer at the neighborhood park who spent summers passing out balls to kids. She was the teacher and principal on the southeast side of Los Angeles in the 1970s who took kids home with her after school and on weekends, back when that sort of thing wasn’t frowned upon.
Hilborn later owned her own private school in California, but when it came time to raise her own children, she and her husband, Bob, and their kids, then ages 7 and 5, settled outside of Colorado Springs in the Black Forest.
Soon, she was looking for a way to work with children again, and CASA was the perfect fit.
“It just seems that CASA is good for everybody,” Hilborn said. “It helps the foster parents feel like they have a first line of informal contact. What they might classify as a silly question, they might feel comfortable asking a CASA so they wouldn’t have to bother the case worker. It helps the GAL because they’re so busy, they couldn’t be expected to go to all of the activities and events.”
As a CASA, Hilborn’s goal has been simply to be there — to be a consistent touchstone for kids who often don’t have one. When caseworkers, therapists and other professionals had to leave the case for a variety of reasons, and the children were placed in foster home after foster home, Hilborn remained on the case. She was always there.
“I try very hard not to put children in a position where they think that I want them to come up and tattle to me or talk about their past. I don’t want them to get the idea that I’m some kind of a professional therapist, when I’m not. I’m very careful to keep myself their level and make friends, and be silly with them and, most importantly, to be the person who is always there,” Hilborn said.
Over two decades, she’s been to countless school functions and she’s regularly volunteered in schools when one of “her kids’’ was there. She’s rolled on the floor, pulled wagons, read Dr. Seuss a million times, and ridden with caseworkers to take the kids to new homes – just so her children would know that she was there for them. Always there.
“When they’re at school, I drop by on a regular basis. I choose school because I’m an educator and I want kids to know that school is important. I choose school because I want them to know that I’m there to see them – not the foster mom or the biological parent – I’m there to see them.”
Her kids remember her.
A few years back, the adoptive mother of the little girl who brought her to Show-and-Tell looked her up, wrote a letter that included a photo, and said the child was doing well and that they remembered her.
A biological mom, whose case had closed 10 years before, called to proudly say that her son, who had struggled badly in school, graduated from high school and had been awarded a scholarship to a junior college. Hilborn had spent hours in the child’s classroom ad had encouraged the mom in her efforts.
It’s been said that there is no pay when you are a CASA, but Hilborn does not believe that. The gifts, she says, are plentiful.
Over the years, she’s helped CASA in other ways by organizing the Kid’s Closet, and as a part of the Speakers Bureau, Sage Council and numerous committees.
She’s drafted her extended family to pitch in to help CASA, too. Her kids have stuffed envelopes, her husband has parked car, her mother has created art for the CASA brochures, and her brothers-in-laws have pitched in too.
With 20 years under her belt as a volunteer for CASA, Hilborn is somehow not jaded. She can’t imagine not being a CASA and has no plans to quit anytime soon.
When she looks back at the parents who harmed the little girl that she met back in February 1992 at Memorial Hospital, she has no ill will.
“I felt so sorry for them. They were 19 and they didn’t even know what they were giving up – they had no idea.”
Those parents never got to Show-and-Tell, and they never had a chance to see the little girl so filled with joy with the giant smile across her face.
Karen Hilborn wouldn’t have missed that for anything. She was glad to be there.