- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2016

HARTSELLE, Ala. (AP) - The calls come at all hours of the day and night, waking the woman from sleep, interrupting her prayers at church and pulling her away from school events. The most recent call came on a recent Saturday, hours before her daughter’s senior prom.

No matter the time, Amy Garnett always responds. She must. Her motherly instinct will not allow otherwise, even on Mother’s Day - if needed. Each call represents a child in need.

For the past eight years, Garnett, her husband and children have served as a foster family for children at risk of neglect or abuse and taken from their homes and families. Fourteen children have passed through the rural Morgan County home in Massey, staying for a day or a week or a month.

“We tend to do better with short-term fostering. We are bad at long-term fostering. I tend to want to keep them forever. And sometimes I do. I fall in love with them instantly,” said Garnett, the mother of six, including three adopted girls.

While Garnett welcomed the children into her home, the children introduced her to the court system. With each child, Garnett’s education on the system’s intricacies deepened.

“You go into court and there is a lawyer for every adult in the room, but there is no one there to speak for the child. The child needs a voice. It’s a sad truth that not every child has a mother or father devoted to them. Every child deserves that. They need someone looking out for them,” Garnett said.

That education led Garnett to spearhead the creation of CASA of North Alabama in 2014.

Consisting of volunteers, CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) serves as the “eyes and ears” of the juvenile and family court system, connecting abused, neglected and abandoned children in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties with safe, permanent homes.

“It has really been wonderful to have CASA involved in the private petitions, which usually involves a grandparent filing for custody because they believe the parent can’t take care of the child,” Morgan County District Court Judge Brent Craig said. “CASA has access to everyone in the child’s life. It also gives the child a constant that will be with them throughout the process.”

Currently, CASA’s 26 volunteers serve as the voices for 120 children. More than a dozen of the children fell under Garnett’s care. While thankful for the children she could assist in placing in nurturing homes, her thoughts always eventually return to the one child she was unable to help.

“We had a foster child several years ago and I knew she was being put in a permanent situation that was not healthy, but I didn’t have the right to say anything. There was no one advocating for that child, so I Googled ‘child advocacy’ and CASA came up,” Garnett said.

She scheduled a visit with the organizers at the state CASA office in Birmingham and recruited Ahbra Northcutt, a fellow foster parent, to head the north Alabama chapter.

“Amy is full of energy,” Northcutt said. “She is constantly advocating and looking out for children. I don’t think it is a conscious effort. I think it is just who she is. As a foster parent, when you see things happening in the system, you can decide: Are you going to sit back or are you going to advocate for change? Amy does not just talk about what needs to change, she does something about it.”

Without Garnett, CASA volunteers focused on the needs of children in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties would not exist.

“We have a court order that gives us access to the child’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, doctors, teachers, coaches and neighbors. We are able to find out things that no one else can,” Garnett said. “We don’t care about mom or dad or grandma. We care only about the child.”

The volunteer title fails to accurately describe the advocates, who, when not physically with the children, think of them constantly.

Last week, during a moment of calm - rare for the mother of six, foster parent of a 14-month-old and CASA volunteer - Garnett sat in silence in the two-story family home where she and her husband, Willard, raised their Hunter, 23, a law student in Birmingham; daughter Haley Rae, 21, a missionary in Guatemala; and daughter Karlie, 19, a student.

Outside, the Garnetts’ adopted daughters, Yuri, 9, Gigi, 8, and Aubree, 4, played with the family’s puppies. The girls’ giggles penetrated the home. On Wednesday, the family will celebrate the sixth anniversary of Yuri and Gigi’s adoption day - an occasion celebrated with chocolate cupcakes, the sisters’ favorite.

“Everyone we knew thought we were crazy for wanting to foster. They pointed out the obvious, that our youngest was 10 and we were at the point of getting a little free time. We didn’t want the free time. We wanted our family,” Amy Garnett said. “Fostering and adopting is the best thing that happened to our family. I don’t think we realized how incomplete our lives were until we started fostering.”

A self-described “baby freak” - a title passed down to her by her mother, a woman who cared for all the babies at church - Garnett always felt the urge to provide a home to some of the 6,000 Alabama children in foster care.

All she needed to do was convince her husband.

“It’s not that he was reluctant. He flat out said, ‘No.’ He said I would want to keep them all. He was right. I did,” Garnett said.

Garnett never succeeded at convincing her husband; that achievement fell to a 1-year-old foster girl in the care of church friends. At an age when most children hid from the tall and burly Willard Garnett, the girl would reach out for him and stroke his beard. He relented to enrolling as a foster care family.

A few months after filling out the paperwork, the Garnetts received a call from the church family. The mother of the girl had another child. Willard and Amy Garnett, if they wished to, could foster both girls. At the ages of 15 months old and 3 months old, Yuri and Gigi came to live with the Garnetts.

“You are the cause of all of this,” Amy Garnett said, rubbing Yuri’s back. “You are the reason we started fostering. You are the reason that there is a CASA in Morgan County.”

Being involved in the foster care system has taught Garnett compassion and acceptance. A year into caring for Yuri and Gigi, Willard and Amy Garnett traveled to the girls’ home country of Guatemala.

“At the time, their mother was in north Alabama and was working to get them back. I took one look at her apartment with the broken window and thought, ‘My children are not living here.’ I did not have compassion then,” Amy Garnett said.

In Guatemala, Garnett saw the dirt floors and stick huts, similar to where the girls’ mother grew up, and understood.

“Yuri and Gigi’s mother was doing what any loving mother would do. She was trying to build a better life for her children. The apartment with the broken window was a step forward for her. That trip changed our whole outlook,” Garnett said.

The girls’ biological mother returned to Guatemala after one of her other children got sick. Before she left, she visited the Garnetts’ home, saw where her daughters slept and agreed to the adoption. She calls two or three times a year to check on them.

The call about Aubree came on a Wednesday night at the Garnetts’ home church of Danville Baptist. Could they take care of an infant girl for one night, the Department of Human Resources wondered. The grandparents, officials said, planned on coming the next day to take custody of the child. One night turned into several months. The grandparents never showed. When DHR finally called about a possible long-term foster care home, Amy Garnett told them she already had a home.

“Each of my children is a blessing. I am so very proud of them. What makes me proudest is that they love God and make good choices. What is the last thing I tell you when you leave for school?” Garnett said, glancing at Yuri and Gigi.

“Roll Tide,” the girls responded in unison.

“I tell them every day as they walk out the door, ‘I love you. Make good choices. Roll Tide,’ ” Garnett said with a laugh. “I don’t need anything for Mother’s Day. I have everything I want. My family is safe, happy and healthy. If I had to choose one thing for Mother’s Day, though, I guess it would be able to catch up on the laundry.”


Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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