Joan Caldwell remembers her first day on the job 30 years ago.
“They gave me a legal pad and set me up in an office and said, ‘Go to it.’”
Two weeks ago, colleagues gathered at Island County Superior Courthouse to thank the Coupeville resident for her years of service on the job, which wasn’t technically a job but an unpaid mission of caring and comfort.
In 1988, she stepped up to be the county’s first Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA. A national program with roots in King County, advocates are appointed by judges to represent the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes following allegations of abuse or neglect.
They visit with children on a regular basis, interview many people who know the children to become familiar with their circumstances and report to the court with recommendations during ongoing periodic hearings.
“It will take adjustment to not have Joan around helping us,” Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock said during the July 12 reception. “We are blessed with all our CASA volunteers who are doing a wonderful job. They care and they want to do what’s best for children and they have a special calling for children.”
Hancock knows Caldwell’s dedication particularly well as he ran on a platform of starting a CASA program during his 1988 campaign. At the time, Caldwell’s husband, Dick Caldwell, was an Island County commissioner.
Over her three decades of service, Caldwell advocated for more than 80 children and trained countless volunteers.
“Joan is the epitome of empathy and grace,” said Andrew Somers, juvenile court administrator, who has known Caldwell for 10 years. “She does everything you could ask. She’s provided so much for the children and our community.”
An annual CASA service award has been created in her name, said Brigette Juras, Island County CASA Program Coordinator.
On average, between 85 and 100 children are served by the program annually, Juras said.
Other CASA volunteers told Caldwell at the retirement gathering that her contributions will live on even after she turns her attention from kids to to quilting.
“It’s been your experiences, your wisdom, your leadership that have been invaluable,” Bob Wolters, who has been a volunteer for 11 years, told Caldwell. “Although you’ll be missed, you’ll always be part of CASA’s Island County program.”
Caldwell, 81, admitted to a learning curve at the start of the local program. Caldwell said she and others wore group T-shirts to conferences and acted not so seriously.
“We were just obnoxious,” she said. “Now we’re professionals. When we go around, we’re recognized for our professionalism and knowledge.”
Carla Grau-Egerton, who retired in 2015 after 15 years as the CASA coordinator, said she could always count on Joan, as she is simply known by all.
Being a CASA volunteer involves experiencing a roller coaster of emotions while trying to remain objective and focused, Grau-Egerton explained.
“There’s a monthly in-service training that really focuses on self-care. How you cope with vicarious trauma is important,” she said. “Volunteers can always pick up the phone and call staff. Or they could call Joan and she could talk them off the ledge and talk them through the heartache.
“Joan was there long before me; she was certainly highly respected. Now she’s a legend.”
Most of the cases involve neglect, Hancock said, because of drugs, alcohol or mental health issues. A solution to where the child will live — reuniting with parents or extended family is the goal — is usually decided within 15 months, he said.
Clearly moved by her tribute, Caldwell described her time with CASA as a window into the worst and best of human behavior.
“These years at CASA, sometimes terrifying, sometimes very, very sad, sometimes joyous. To me, it’s been the most meaningful time, outside my family, that I’ve experienced.”
With her background in nursing, Caldwell became the leading advocate to handle shaken baby syndrome cases which were numerous some 15 years ago.
“She took training at Seattle Children’s Hospital,” said Grau-Egerton. “If shaken babies don’t die, they end up with brain damage and visual problems.
“She told me, ‘I don’t want anymore of those (cases.) They hurt too much.’ I didn’t want to burn her out. She was one of my jewels.”
A retired school nurse who had moved to Whidbey from California, Caldwell said she volunteered for CASA to continue working with children and because she had witnessed the need first hand.
“I was a school nurse in L.A. and I would get kids and they would be abused and social services would pick them up and I’d never see them again.
“I just decided to do it,” she said of her decision at age 51 to plunge into the new advocacy program that’s provided countless children and teenagers around Island County with a steady and caring voice.
“Once I started, I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”