“I’m sort of like a courtesy aunt,” said 82-year-old Nancy Gehman, speaking of her 14 years as a volunteer advocate for children in state custody.
Her colleagues describe her differently: “Nancy is a fierce advocate,” said Annie Rasquin, executive director of the New Mexico First Judicial District’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
Another staff member of the program, better known as CASA, said Gehman “will fight and never give up for foster children.”
Gehman, one of the program’s longest-serving volunteers, has seen some of the toughest child welfare cases, many that drag on through the courts for years. Her role, she said, is to be the one adult who is a consistent presence in the life of a child who has been removed from a home because of abuse or neglect.
Yes, she is like a courtesy aunt, visiting foster children at their homes or psychiatric centers, bringing toys or blankets or backpacks that have been donated to CASA. She plans birthday parties and takes pictures.
Sometimes she receives gifts, too. Gehman recalled one little girl in particular: “She always had a note for me that she prepared ahead of time, a sweet note, or a picture that she had made herself to give to me.”
But her responsibility is far more serious, and she does indeed tackle it with a ferocious dedication. Gehman meets with parents and foster parents, teachers and lawyers, social workers, medical professionals and counselors, and even judges.
She reads their reports and offers insights of her own, helping to ensure children in the state’s care are receiving all the services they need, and that they are safe and supported in their foster homes or treatment facilities. She helps make difficult decisions about what’s in a child’s best interest – whether his or her parents are ready to regain custody or whether that’s just not possible.
“You always want to keep your eyes open. You have to keep an open mind,” Gehman said.
Because of her many years of working with some of the most traumatized foster children in Santa Fe, Río Arriba and Los Alamos counties, Gehman is being honored as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2017.
“Though many decry the horrific abuse of children in New Mexico we read about, Nancy does something about it,” said Rasquin, who nominated Gehman for the honor. “We hope she will be a CASA First for another decade.”
She doesn’t have any intention of stopping, Gehman said. In fact, she’s planning to undergo the program’s training process again after the start of the new year, when she’ll also take on a new case or two.
Gehman moved to Santa Fe about 33 years ago from Houston, where she had been working with a politician who had decided not to run for re-election. She had family ties here, and she would often visit.
“I could see myself growing old in the mountains,” she said.
She got involved with CASA because she’d always enjoyed working with children, and, Gehman said, “you want to do something that’s bigger than yourself, that involves the community.”
She also had grown a little weary of politics, she said. “Political work has become so polarized and so full of anger that I haven’t been so interested ... This is one-on-one, so it’s more satisfying.”
It’s rewarding, Gehman said – “I receive way more than I give with the program and with the children” – but it’s not always easy.
“When you’re presented with a case where a child has been actually physically harmed, I mean a body cast, that’s hard,” she said. “But you know that we’re doing the best we can – and maybe the best we can is not perfect, but it is a whole lot better than what that child has experienced in the past.”
People who abuse, neglect or abandon children often have been victims themselves. “And that’s what needs to stop,” Gehman said, “that cycle of abuse.”
She’s experienced triumphs – one “perfect” adoption of a baby born addicted to opioids, for instance – and heartbreaks, such as adoptions that fell apart or children who were reunited with their families, only to return to the foster system following another incident of abuse or neglect.
“Most of my cases have been very long term,” she said, “so I haven’t worked with a large number of children, but I worked a long time with a significant number of children.”
Some of the cases have involved numerous siblings, spread around the region in different foster homes. Gehman visits them all. “You can use up a lot of miles,” she said.
She is still in contact with the first child she served through CASA, a young woman who is now doing well.
Most of her cases have ended with adoption, a bittersweet conclusion that means the child has a new family and a permanent home – but that her work with the child is done.
“When it’s been a long time, it isn’t as if you stop thinking about them,” Gehman said, “and wonder how they are.”
Sometimes she gets a glimpse that makes her smile.
“I just saw a boy who has been adopted, and he said his dad is the greatest dad in the galaxy,” Gehman chuckled. “Now how great is that?”
Contact Cynthia Miller at (505)-986-3095 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first appeared in The New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.