By Joshua Winata
Killeen Daily Herald
For hundreds of children caught in the Central Texas foster care system, Siria Cruz represents compassion and the hope of stability in the midst of a sea of change.
With her amiable face and warm smile, she radiates a casual frankness and genuine friendliness. But when it comes to her role as a child advocate, Cruz, Court Appointed Special Advocates program director for Bell and Coryell counties, speaks with a quiet passion that can only come from experience.
Although her love for children began at an early age, Cruz's road to child advocacy was a long learning process.
Cruz began working with children not long after moving to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1992. After her first daughter was born, she left her job in the clothing import industry and opened her own daycare, where she was first introduced to the realities of child abuse.
"When you have a daycare, the happy kids come to you from the well-adjusted homes," Cruz said. "When I went to daycare classes, they tell you about child abuse, and you're like, This doesn't happen' because you don't see it in your circle. But because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not happening."
In 2001, Cruz and her husband at the time moved to Killeen where she began taking psychology classes at Central Texas College. With little else to occupy her time, Cruz soon began working part-time as a children activities specialist for Families in Crisis, Inc., a shelter for victims of family violence and sexual assault.
At about the same time, Cruz was going through difficulties in her own personal life, which allowed her to empathize with the agency's clients.
"You feel isolated; you feel like you're the only one that is going through that. And then you get there, and you see that it's universal. There's a lot of people who go through this," Cruz said. "You get involved, and you see all the people that are going through perhaps the same thing you are going through at different levels."
The shelter allowed Cruz to work in close interaction with abuse victims, and she discovered her calling in caring for their needs. Cruz quickly became a case manager, but she began to get restless, longing to take on long-term projects with more direct results.
"When you are an adult case manager, you have a certain amount of time that they can stay in the shelter, and you can not fix anyone's problems in that short amount of time. I felt that I could make the most impact dealing with the child trying to get them out of the foster care system," Cruz said.
Cruz applied for a position at CASA and, in the first case she witnessed, CASA helped reunite a young girl with her siblings. A lack of available foster care facilities in Central Texas means brothers and sisters are frequently separated and may not see each other for months or years.
As program director, Cruz recruits volunteers to handle individual court cases involving abused and neglected children. Her goal is to enlist 50 volunteers by the end of the year.
After extensive interviews and 30 hours of training, CASA volunteers are matched with a case based on their preferences and abilities. CASA partners with the court system to identify cases involving abused and neglected children, and volunteers commit to finding alternative living arrangements or permanent placements for those who otherwise might be caught in the foster care system indefinitely. Cases usually last about 12 months.
"You get to intervene at an early age when you can still make an impact," Cruz said. "If you can implant that little seed in their heads that there is somebody out there who cares about me enough to do this for free, that gives them a great sense of security and enhances their self-esteem."
Although confidentiality requirements prevent her from discussing details, Cruz's latest success story involves three siblings in the foster care system who were placed in separate foster homes in Bell and Williamson counties. With cooperation with an out-of-state agency, Cruz located a long-lost family friend in April who was able to take in all the children under one roof.
"I saw the need that these children have for something constant in their lives. They move so much, and they go through so many things, and when they get removed from (Child Protective Services), they have to change schools, change residents, change friends. They change everything," Cruz said.
At home, Cruz's devotion to her family reflects the same passion that she has for her work. Her three daughters, ages 8, 9 and 18, have all been raised with a mindset of generosity.
Her eldest child was a volunteer for Families in Crisis, and even her two younger girls have learned the importance of giving from their mother.
"At Christmas time, I always make them donate one of their gifts that they get to either Toys For Tots or anywhere. You have to foster that sense of helping others. It's good citizenship, but it also makes you feel good about you doing something for somebody else," Cruz said.
Spending so much time with children, Cruz herself is a child at heart and enjoys watching shows like SpongeBob Square Pants and Hannah Montana.
"It brings me back to the level of the child, and it keeps me from being too serious," Cruz admits sheepishly.
Contact Joshua Winata at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 547-6481