Retired CASA volunteer receives award for child advocacy work

Bob Schmielau began advocating for a child when the boy was 6.

The 76-year-old Seymour resident said the boy was a troubled child, but going to a Catholic group home in Terre Haute did wonders for him.

The boy then spent time at the Judge Robert Brown Jackson County Juvenile Home in Brownstown and made even more progress.

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While there, the boy met with people who were looking to be foster parents.

“As they walked in the door, the two people started talking to him. He’s a neat kid, he really is,” Schmielau said. “They started visiting with him and having him visit with them, and they were going to adopt him and he wasn’t sure about that.”

The boy wound up staying at the juvenile home for about five more months until he finally decided to be adopted.

On June 1, the boy, now 16, was officially adopted by a family that lives in a suburb of Indianapolis. Schmielau was there for the celebration.

“That’s the purpose of the CASA,” he said of advocating for victims of abuse and neglect to ensure they remain at the forefront of the court proceedings and find a safe, permanent home.

The boy was Schmielau’s final child to advocate for, as he decided to retire from volunteering with the Jackson County Guardian Ad Litem/Court Appointed Special Advocates program after 11 years.

In recognition of his dedication to the program, Schmielau recently was presented the 2020 CASA Award. He was nominated by the Jackson County Retired Teachers Association for his years of service.

In the nominating letter written by JCRTA Vice President Ann Mahan that was submitted to the Indiana Retired Teachers Association committee, she said Schmielau was looking for some way to bring meaning to his life and others by way of service after retiring as Seymour Community School Corp. superintendent 11 years ago.

At a JCRTA meeting, he learned about CASA from a guest speaker. He then went through training in Columbus and began volunteering with CASA of South Central Indiana until Jackson County formed its own program.

“Since that time, his dream of finding a fulfillment in serving others has been reached,” Mahan wrote.

Once a child was assigned to him, Schmielau researched and investigated the child and his or her home life from as many sources as were available to him.

“His main thrust is to get to know the child and try to determine how to make things better for his or her life,” Mahan wrote. “He has learned the price of patience and exploring avenues that will make the child happy and healthy. He follows the child wherever he is, making sure all things are working for his best interest.”

His investigations took him many places around the state, making sure he maintained contact with that child as long as he or she was in the system or until of age. He also had to give five-page written reports every four to six months that were recommendations to the court on the child’s status.

“His work has fulfilled him for these many years, and he tries to spread the word on the growing number of children that need to be served,” Mahan wrote. “He has spoken to our chapter about CASA. He is truly an unselfish worker for CASA.”

Going to great lengths

Schmielau, known by the kids as “CASA Bob,” is humbled by the award.

“I don’t want to accept it as an individual and what the individual did,” he said. “It means a lot to see that people care what you do, but it’s not just me.”

Deena Personett, program manager for Jackson County GAL/CASA, said Schmielau spent 3,000 hours and traveled more than 45,000 miles to help 24 kids over his 11 years of volunteering.

“It’s well-deserved, amazingly well-deserved,” she said of the award. “Bob has not only helped the kids that he served, but he has also been a huge advocate for our program, especially when it came to using his expertise in education.”

A native of Chickasha, Oklahoma, Schmielau’s family moved to the Midwest, where he attended grade school in Illinois and graduated from Rich Township High School in Park Forest.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Valparaiso University, a master’s degree in education from Indiana University and a doctorate in education from Ball State University.

For 11 years, he taught elementary school in La Porte. Then he served as elementary principal and junior high principal for 10 years.

For the next five years, he served as assistant superintendent in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and another five years, he served as superintendent of Randolph Eastern in Union City. He ended his educational career in Seymour, where he served for six years before retiring.

After becoming involved in CASA, Schmielau said he made a surprising discovery.

“I saw a whole different underground that I hadn’t seen, and I saw children in need that I hadn’t seen,” he said. “I had been working with kids for 41 years, and I felt I needed to address those needs. That was important to me. The kids were important to me and not really anything else.”

Having a heart for kids

In the beginning, Schmielau said he became familiar with local Department of Child Services workers and often traded information with them.

But several years in, he began to notice a lot of turnover with those workers, and some kids wound up with multiple family case managers in a year.

“They do the best they can, but they have a large group, and then when somebody else leaves, ‘Oh, here’s eight more cases,’” Schmielau said. “They can’t know the kids. That’s the real positive of the CASA is the CASA knows the child. Not just what happened, where they were or whatever, but the CASA knows and understands the child and the child’s whole history. That’s what a CASA does that DCS cannot do.”

A CASA receives 30 hours of training and observes a case in a courtroom so they know what to expect. Upon completion, they are sworn in by a judge.

Personett said most CASA volunteers carry a case at a time. Volunteers can be individuals, couples or friends who advocate for a child.

“I think you just have to have a heart for kids,” Personett said. “You have to be willing to stand up. All kids need somebody to speak for them from a young age on to at least be there. Our own children, ‘If you fall down, you’re going to fall and you’re going to stumble, and I’m not always going to break your fall,’ but you can be there to advocate and be there to support them.”

Schmielau worked with a boy who had been arrested and police realized he had a mental disability. The boy was sent to the group home in Brownstown, and he later was placed back with his family.

A girl he worked with was mentally challenged and wound up being adopted and made straight A’s in school.

“One of the things with these kids, you have to understand that they are harmed,” Schmielau said. “They are sweet kids, but they are harmed, and we have to help them through.”

‘A joy to it’

It always gave Schmielau satisfaction helping kids.

“There’s a joy to it. When you see a child who’s hurting, then you can help him get healthy or get well or help the family. Obviously, I’m joyous in that,” he said. “They see CASA Bob as the one person who always loved them, always cared for them, always stayed with them, always listened to what they had to say. … You’re the only person that has been consistent and strong in their life.”

He also has a lot of joy for the people who adopt or foster a child served by CASA.

“I’ve seen foster parents pay more money and take more care than the state is giving them in dollars. They take those kids, they love them, they care for them and they do the best for them,” he said. “I would say 90% or more of parents who take foster kids, it’s to care for them and to love them.”

Schmielau also saw mothers stop using drugs and get the help they need to get their child back.

“DCS would still check on them after they went back in, but they went back in successfully,” he said. “That’s joyful for me, too.”

Personett said Jackson County GAL/CASA currently is serving 125 kids. Advocates include nearly 40 volunteers, Personett, Assistant Program Manager Julie Hirtzel and Staff Advocate Keisha Wright.

Even though there are no kids on the wait list now, Personett said that could change at any time, so it’s important to have more people become CASA volunteers.

“We had 13 new children added last week. That’s huge,” she said. “We might go two months and not have a new kiddo, and then we may have a month where we’ll have 25 or 30.”

Since volunteers are not always easy to obtain, Personett said it’s good to have staff members who can help kids.

“Our goal is that when these kids come in, if I don’t have a CASA volunteer sitting there, one of us can pick it up right away,” she said. “Then as soon as a CASA volunteer is ready or available, we can just pass that case off, but we haven’t missed a beat with a kiddo.”

For those interested in volunteering, Personett said she shares an important message.

“I always tell everyone coming in ‘Our stories are ugly, but our endings are happy,’” she said.

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Jackson County Guardian Ad Litem/Court Appointed Special Advocates is a nonprofit volunteer-powered program that provides advocacy to child victims of abuse and neglect to ensure they remain at the forefront of the court proceedings and find a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

For information, contact Deena Personett at 812-569-2598 or email [email protected] or visit the office in the Community Agency Building in downtown Seymour at 113 N. Chestnut St., Suite 305.