KAYE McCARTHY: Healing broken families, one visit at a time

Kaye McCarthyShe re-jiggered her life, leaving a successful law career after the sudden deaths of two of her colleagues. She helped start an organization that gives broken families a cozy, safe environment in which to play and fills in where needed to make life a little easier for children and teens in the foster care system. Arizonans for Children President Kaye McCarthy talks about how personal detours can lead to a discovery of inner passions that make each day one to treasure.

Vicki: You had a very successful law practice. What led you to make a change?

Kaye: I felt a lot like that little hamster on the wheelie. Because you always have an opponent. And you always want to be a step ahead of him. So I’d work, work, work on the weekends and hope he was sleeping so I would just be a step ahead of him come Monday morning. And you just never stop.

Vicki: So when did the light go on?

Kaye: Two of my close friends died. One from ALS [and one who was] running and dropped dead from a heart attack. They were my age. [Practicing] the same exact law I was practicing. It really brings you up short. I stood back and I took a good, hard look at my life.

Vicki: Did you always know you wanted to start a non-profit?

Kaye: After I stopped practicing—and stopped cleaning my closets and my house—I volunteered to be a CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, for a foster child. A CASA visits the school, and the doctors and dentists and the foster parents, and watches out. Do they need glasses? Do they need braces? If so, do they get them? You go into court, you write a report…just standard litigation stuff.

Vicki: As you represented these kids, what was it that made you want to do more?

Kaye: CASAs don’t get reimbursed for anything. Every time you take a kid out, you drop a hundred bucks. You have to feed them. Movie tickets, that sort of thing. So I had this idea…why isn’t anyone donating any of these things?

Vicki: That led you to an auxillary organization formed to support CASAs and you began to brainstorm with them on ways to help kids. Is that how Arizonans for Children began?

Kaye: One of the people in that group had the idea for a visitation center. I started a 501(c)(3) and then a board member knocked on the door at Historic First Church and asked if we could rent some space.

Vicki: So this is a place where parents who have lost custody of their kids temporarily go to spend little chunks of time with them. Where had these parents been seeing their children before?

Kaye: These visits were being held in the CPS (Child Protective Services) office. No windows. File cabinets, desks, folding chairs. You can’t sit down across a table from a 5-year-old and say, “Well, let’s just chat for two hours.” Their language is play. So you have to have things to do.

Vicki: Talk about the Arizonans for Children centers. (There are now centers in Phoenix, Peoria and Mesa.)

Kaye: What we’ve tried to do here is create a comfortable environment with cushy sofas and chairs, pictures and plants. I think it helps them relax. When you see them all snuggled down on these gargantuan couches with hand-crocheted afghans (I go to Goodwill and get them for two bucks) they are comfy. It gives them a feeling of safety.

Vicki: What kind of parents are we talking about here? What are the reasons their children ended up in foster care in the first place?

Kaye: People have said to me, “If these parents were so awful that they had their children taken away from them, why would you want to help them get their children back?” Sixty-some percent are in custodial care because of neglect. Not because of physical abuse or sexual abuse. The reason they are neglected is because the parents are on drugs. If the parents can get off drugs and stay clean, then the kids can go back to parents who love them. You have to maintain that family bonding. You just can’t let that go.

Vicki: Still, it seems like very tough work. So was practicing law. How, ultimately, has your own life changed?

Kaye: When I was practicing, this is how I would think: I would wish it were six months from now so I would have it behind me. Dreading it, hating it, actually. Now, every night I can hardly wait to wake up the next morning. I can hardly wait to get at it. RAK

Vicki Louk Balint, of Phoenix, is the mother of Cory (26), Frankie (21), Robert (17) and Annie (16). Read her blog at raisingarizonakids.com. Write to her at vicki@raisingarizonakids.com.