It was 2016 when Mateo was removed from his home, along with his younger sister, because of his mother’s drug abuse, mental health issues, and lack of parental supervision. On the same day he entered the child welfare system, he also was arrested and faced charges of his own. He was 11 years old at the time.
While Mateo’s little sister went to live with her biological father, the whereabouts of Mateo’s father remained unknown and the boy was placed in a group home north of Denver. His wait for a Court Appointed Special Advocate began.
About a year later, with a track record of good behavior, Mateo was moved to a group home in
Monument where he first met his CASA volunteer, a retired nurse by the name of Sara Lee.
Sara had always been a nurturer, with a calling to care for others. After taking care of patients as a women’s and pediatric nurse for 37 years, the Colorado native decided to continue her service to others during retirement and was sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in April of 2018.
“He was always cordial. He’s a really nice kid who has a way with people and enjoys people,” Sara recalled about her first meetings with Mateo, her first CASA case. “He was open to establishing a relationship with me but he wanted it to be more of a supporter relationship. I was someone that was never going to be his best buddy by virtue of age, but I was a consistent person for him and I think we forget how important that is that these kids have a consistent person who is always there.”
Sara was the most consistent adult presence that Mateo had ever had in his life.
During their twice monthly visits, the pair would go hiking or go out to lunch. It was also the first time Mateo knew he would have a fan in the stands during football games or track meets because Sara loved cheering for him. She also took him shopping at The Hanger, facilitated visits for Mateo and his maternal grandfather who lived in the area, and secured a Milton Foster Children’s Fund (MFCF) grant so that he could take driver’s education classes.
During this time in his life, as he was turning from a boy into a man, Mateo had to deal with the added stress brought on by his biological mom who was in and out of the picture. She would show up every now and then with intentions to parent him, but she never managed to stick with the treatment plan. This undependable behavior lasted for three years and took a toll on Mateo’s emotional health.
Through CASA’s Life Long Links service, Sara came to know Mateo’s maternal aunt who lived in Michigan with her husband and three daughters (Mateo’s cousins). After a visit in Colorado, the aunt and uncle were identified as a possible placement option for Mateo and Sara went to work developing a very strong relationship with the family.
The team of professionals working on Mateo’s case – which included Sara as well as caseworkers, attorneys, and the judge – all decided it was in the young man’s best interest if he completed his probation in Colorado before venturing to Michigan to start his new life as part of a family.
“From the time the aunt and uncle were identified as a possible placement for him, they became disillusioned with the system. They felt ignored. They felt it would never happen and that maybe they made a mistake,” Sara explained.
As the CASA, Sara acted as the informant for the aunt and uncle, explaining to them what was going on, what to expect in the future, and what tactics they could try.
“I spent hours and hours on the phone with the aunt. She likes to know all the details and likes to have a plan. I think if I had not been the person she could call and the person to talk things through with, she wouldn’t have gotten through this,” Sara said.
Sara encouraged the aunt and uncle to visit Mateo in Colorado a second time, and that is ultimately when the decision was made. Mateo moved to Michigan to be with his family last fall and the contract between Colorado and Michigan was entered over a virtual court proceeding that took place over WebEx due to COVID-19’s social distancing requirements.
“I could tell after he had been there a few months, he flipped and was part of their family.” Sara said about her long-distance conversations she had with Mateo. “He’s a really special kid. He definitely has what it takes to make it in life and I hope he continues to make good decisions and keep working at it because he has done a lot of hard work.”
Sara Lee continuously showed up for Mateo. She stood by his side and made sure his aunt and uncle had the encouragement and resources they needed to also stand by his side. Sara’s work in Mateo’s life is a shining illustration of the difference that one committed adult can make for an at-risk child.
There are hundreds of children like Mateo that need a volunteer like Sara … a volunteer like you. Click here to learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer.