Why Does a Retired Lawyer Need to Learn About Lava?

Editor’s note: Rex’s Seafood & Market is sponsoring this monthly feature.

A Court Appointed Special Advocate’s work doesn’t begin nor end with a legal proceeding.

And, as new Dallas CASA volunteer Cliff Hutchinson has seen recently, it could require a crash course in the particulars of the three-horned rhinoceros beetle.

A 9-year-old boy assigned to Hutchinson was struggling in school, struggling in foster care placement, and struggling in his other relationships.

Therapy didn’t appear to help.

The boy remained bored in school, prone to emotional outbursts, and unwilling to follow instructions. Mandatory distance learning, prompted by the precautionary closure of schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, made it worse, according to a press release from Dallas CASA.

Judges appoint volunteers such as Hutchinson to advocate for the interests of children removed from unsafe homes and forced to live in protective state care. But with an overburdened child welfare system, the role often makes a volunteer a child’s only constant adult presence, said Rosanne Lewis, Dallas CASA public relations manager.

“But I see now that advocacy is really about the relationship. I’m a constant, and it’s important to him to have someone.”

Cliff Hutchinson, Dallas CASA volunteer

Hutchinson, seeing from his first meeting the boy’s smarts and curiosity, had a hunch the child needed more to do.

“He’s like a sponge,” said Hutchinson, who lives in Preston Hollow. “The schoolwork he was assigned to do at home during the pandemic was taking him only 30 minutes to an hour a day. He had a lot more time to fill.”

Hutchinson suggested the two meet via Zoom weekly to discuss topics of interest to the boy. The first suggestion: beetles, particularly the three-horned rhinoceros beetle.

After some online research, Hutchinson came prepared for the first virtual meeting with videos and other information. They discussed beetles for an hour.

The next Zoom call covered volcanos and lava. They watched Bill Nye the Science Guy videos and explored National Geographic Kids together.

The boy is Hutchinson’s first case as a child advocate.

As a recently retired attorney, he thought the legal aspect of child advocacy would be a good fit, so he signed up for the 30-hour volunteer training before taking his first case.

He does his volunteer work around his schedule as an adjunct professor at SMU’s Dedman School of Law.

“Honestly, my first thought had been to give him more schoolwork,” Hutchinson said. “But I see now that advocacy is really about the relationship. I’m a constant, and it’s important to him to have someone.”

They’ve added many more topics to explore: robots, electronics, dinosaurs, birds, and fish. When the boy recently learned he was moving to a new foster home, his first question was for Hutchinson: “Are you coming with me?”

“I’m here,” the volunteer told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

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