With a background in legal aid and family law, Elizabeth felt called to do more for abused and neglected children.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
After a ten-year break from practicing law, during which I dove into many volunteer activities while raising my three boys, I was ready for more. With my oldest twin boys starting high school, I knew that they would leave the nest in 4 short years and I wanted to have my life filled with purpose, apart from mothering my children.
My Christian faith has always played a very strong role in my life and, once again, helped guide me as I decided where I should devote my time and effort. Although I loved my last job as a family lawyer, I decided I wanted to focus more specifically on helping children. Through my practice, I saw that children were powerless in the disputes between their parents: They were the real victims.
I felt that God kept putting in my heart the desire to help abused and neglected children in this next stage of life. I wasn’t sure whether I should go back to work and exclusively focus on children’s law or whether I should re-focus my volunteer opportunities on vulnerable children. A friend told me about an organization called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in which specially trained volunteers advocate for a single child or sibling group in the abuse and neglect system. After 40 hours of training, I became a CASA volunteer in the northern suburbs of Chicago; I loved it.
God kept putting in my heart the desire to help abused and neglected children in this next stage of life.
I still felt called to do more for these children. My family and I discussed becoming foster parents and we became involved in an organization called Safe Families. Its mission is to provide a safe and loving home for children on a temporary basis while their parents go through a struggle which renders them momentarily unable to care for them (homelessness, overcoming a health/mental health issue, leaving a relationship with domestic violence, etc.).
During two separate 3-month periods, we hosted a child in our home. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. Although we still are involved in Safe Families and hope to host more children when the time is right, I realized that I did not want to have my life devoted to taking care of children, with the endless laundry, cooking, and driving that entailed. It was at this point, at age 45, that I decided to return to the workplace, with the goal to find a job in child-focused law.
What is your next act?
I am an Advocate Manager at CASA Lake County. I manage 30+ CASA volunteers (of which I was one) as they advocate for their children in the Lake County abuse and neglect court. I am their legal advisor; I help them write court reports for the judge; I advise on resources for the children; I cover every court hearing and important meeting; I encourage them, listen to them and partner with them to obtain the best outcomes possible for the children. I work about 35 hours per week, with some flexibility. I have to be in court on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings but can leave by 3pm on some days to pick up my youngest son.
I chose this job because an opening came up right as I was starting my job search. I had pursued a position as a “guardian ad litem” (a guardian appointed by the court to represent the interests of minors or mentally incompetent persons during a legal action) but there were no opportunities available. I began researching other organizations advocating for children, and the timing for the opening at CASA Lake County was perfect. I am profoundly grateful for my job as it combines my passion for children and my legal background, allowing me to work with my strengths.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It took quite a bit of courage to put myself out there. Remembering past job searches, I dreaded starting all over again and hated having to condense who I am onto a one-page resume. I spent two months reading up on children’s law, going to seminars offered through the local bar associations, and networking.
My friends and family were very supportive of me becoming a CASA volunteer and eventually going back to work. My youngest son probably questioned it the most because I needed to arrange childcare for him. Many of my friends were returning to work part-time so there was a lot of support. The only regret is that I don’t have as much time to spend with my friends during the weekdays.
What challenges did you encounter?
Not having worked in Chicago since right after law school, when my husband and I moved to Europe for a number of years, I had very few local connections. I also lacked an established reputation in the Chicago legal community, having practiced so many years abroad. My age and my lengthy career break did not help either.
I dreaded starting all over again and hated having to condense who I am onto a one-page resume.
We had to make adjustments at home in that our boys had to take on more responsibility. I couldn’t be around in the middle of the day so if they forgot something, they had to deal with it. The house was less clean, the laundry wasn’t done as often, and dinner was not homemade as much. The boys had to help a lot more with cooking, cleaning up, and doing laundry; my teenagers had to help run errands, as well as babysit and drive their younger brother. Everyone has managed well. As my kids are older, I realize they don’t need or want me to micro-manage their lives. They seem to enjoy the extra responsibility.
My work also involves challenging and sad stories, which I have found difficult for my husband and children to connect to. I realize that they are not wired like I am: They find my work incredibly depressing, while I find it inspirational. I have learned that I can quickly become a “black cloud” at the dinner table. However, my boys are sweet and sensitive when I say “Mommy had a hard day and I need a hug.”
I have been able to share life lessons with my sons and expose them to children who come from very difficult backgrounds. For example, I visited the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center and it prompted a very frank conversation that night about the importance of obeying the law and that there are real consequences when one doesn’t. I try to switch off on weekends, but my CASA volunteers know that they can reach me at anytime if there is a crisis with one of the children that they advocate for.
The issues we deal with mainly involve a parent who has an addiction or mental health problem, which leads to a crisis in that they cannot properly parent their children. We also have parents who have locked their teen out because they can’t control their child’s behavior. We have had many cases where a baby has unexplained injuries and the baby and siblings are removed from the family.
I have been able to share life lessons with my sons and expose them to children who come from very difficult backgrounds.
Some are simple cases: A parent starts to slide into an addiction, the child lives with a grandparent, and the parent sobers up and eventually proves that they are clean and can care for their child. After a few months of monitoring the parent after the child has been returned to the home, the case closes. If there is a supportive extended family, we have confidence in the parent doing well.
On the other extreme, the parent may have 4-5 children and inflict severe abuse to one or more of them. In that case, the children get placed in separate homes and often suffer many emotional problems due to the abuse, which destabilizes their foster placements. The parents don’t do anything to correct the conditions that led to the children being removed, no adoptive home can be found, and the children remain in the system until they’re 21.
I’m not worried about an angry parent seeking revenge on me or on our volunteers because we are careful about giving personal information out. I work to make sure my CASA volunteers are comfortable with the neighborhoods that they travel to. When the children live in very dangerous neighborhoods, we try to assign a CASA team to work with them. There is a lot of emotion in these cases and one of my jobs is to assist the CASA volunteer with their relationships, whether it is with a parent, caseworker, or attorney in the courtroom.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
There were times before I started my job search that I talked myself out of it. I was happily married, had three great kids and a wonderful lifestyle – why did I need to go back to work and face the challenges of a job search? However, through prayer, God’s prompting, and the support of my family, I overcame my insecurities.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife and for those interested in pursuing your path?
Spend time thinking about what you really love. Look at your strengths and talents and try to volunteer in an area in which you can use them. Volunteering helps open up doors and create connections.
If you are a lawyer or former lawyer, keep in mind that children’s law is a narrow field. CASA’s programs nationwide are great places to do incredibly meaningful volunteer work. Local Bar Associations host CLE (Continuing Legal Education) opportunities in which one can network. Pro Bono (free of charge) work with legal aid clinics will also help you network. Finally, the law schools often have clinics or projects which focus on children and family law. These are all ways to network and start getting involved in the field.
If you are interested in volunteering with CASA, no legal experience is necessary. Many CASA volunteers have backgrounds in teaching, social work, or simply love to work with children. My legal experience helps me in my job as a manager because most of my CASA volunteers aren’t lawyers so they are unfamiliar with the legal process.
Learn more about CASA
Contact Elizabeth Sammann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-383-6260 x210