Danylle Carson hasn’t seen the woman in more than 20 years. Much of the relatively brief time the two spent together has faded from memory, and Carson can’t even remember the woman’s name.

But what Carson does remember — the woman’s commanding presence, her genuine caring, and her words of encouragement — were like a feast to a starving child. They not only gave birth to Carson’s dream, but provided the fuel she would need to spend decades pursuing it.

“In this short period of time she was in my life she made a huge impact,” Carson said. “She taught me you’re more than the hand that’s given to you.”

The woman, a guardian ad litem appointed by the court to act as Carson’s advocate when the 7-year-old girl was permanently removed from her mother’s custody, not only inspired Carson to attend law school, but sparked Carson’s passion to one day serve the same role for other children.

Carson, 32, found an outlet for that calling in the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in Maine. CASA volunteers advocate for abused, neglected or abandoned children when the state requests court intervention because their parents are not able to care for them.

“I really want to be for these kids what my guardian ad litem was to me,” Carson said.

Libby McCullum, program manager for CASA Maine, said the program is continually seeking volunteers to serve as the children’s representative. Unlike the parents’ attorneys, or even the state, the singular job of the CASA volunteer is to consider the best interest of the children and make recommendations to the court.

“Their job is to conduct an investigation and then advise the court,” McCullum said. “They call it the eyes and ears of the court.”

Making a difference

CASA volunteers can make a lifetime’s difference in a child’s life, McCullum said.

Carson is the case in point.

“She would say things like, ‘Nothing that’s worth anything has ever been easy,’” Carson said of her guardian ad litem. “I’ve taken that literally in my life. That’s why I’m in my second year of law school.”

Carson and her husband, Jeff, live in an 1800s-era farmhouse off a dirt road in Leeds, where they raise their three children, ages 13, 6 and 2. It’s about 50 miles and a lifetime away from Portland, where Carson was born. That’s also where, as just an 18-month-old-baby, she first went to live with a foster family. Carson returned to her biological mother a few months later, but Carson came into the permanent care of the state when she was 7 and her mother was sentenced to prison.

It was during that court process that Carson met her guardian ad litem.

“I just got swept under the rug by everybody,” Carson said. “I could count on one hand the number of adults that were positive influences in my life. Then she walked into my life. Her biggest goal was to give my voice volume.”

Carson recalls little of the woman other than her impact. She was a lawyer and had a commanding presence, Carson said. Carson decided she wanted to be a lawyer, too. The woman didn’t dismiss the notion as others had. She encouraged the young girl’s dream and told her to pursue it with all her might. At a time when so many expected Carson to absorb more than should ever be expected of a little girl, the guardian was content to give Carson room to be a child, sometimes quiet and sometimes chatty.

“A few words from my (guardian) changed my life,” Carson said.

A ‘forever home’

The seeds the guardian planted took time to bloom, however. Carson spent the next eight years bouncing between foster homes, group homes and shelters.

“I bounced around a lot,” she said. “The Department of Human Services called me yo-yo girl.”

Carson says now that she was challenging as a child, which in part led to her short stays with various foster families. Carson was homeless by the time she was 12 and began staying at Preble Street’s Lighthouse Teen Shelter in Portland. Even during that time, however, the guardian’s encouragement was enough to keep Carson from following others at the shelter who spent days aimlessly. Carson knew if she was going to be a lawyer she had to keep attending school.

“I spent my days at school and the Preble teen center,” she said. “I still had a long way to go until I found my forever home. Every time I wanted to give up I heard her saying, ‘You can do this. You just have to work.’”

Carson spent the winter at the shelter. Then one night her friend’s parents, Charles and Natalie Hale of Buxton, showed up to take her home with them. Carson had befriended the Hales’ daughter, Jenn, several years earlier while attending the church pastored by Charles Hale.

“They said, ‘We can’t let you stay like this,’” Carson said. She continues to hold a close friendship with the Hale family.

Carson lived with the Hales for a couple of years, during which time she attended a church youth group in Portland. It was there that she met Ryan McNally, who became one of Carson’s best friends.

His parents, Mark and Diane McNally, asked Carson to come and live with them. Carson was 15 years old, but she was finally home. She continued to test the McNallys’ love and devotion to see if it would crack under pressure. She eventually learned the bonds could withstand the strain. The family formally adopted Carson when she was 21.

“I was a McNally,” Carson said, the joy of belonging still bright in her eyes.

Her dream of “a forever home” achieved, Carson set out to pursue her goal of becoming an attorney. A 2000 graduate of Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, Carson got an associate degree in the paralegal program and joined a Lewiston law office while continuing to work toward a bachelor’s degree. She graduated in 2010 with a criminal justice degree from the University of Phoenix.

Carson took an extended leave from her job when beset by a heart problem in 2011. By the time she was well enough to return to work she still had a job waiting for her, but the position she loved was now filled by someone else. Carson decided it was time to jump into law school at the University of Maine. She continues to commute to Portland several times a week. Jeff Carson has had to pick up a lot of the slack around the house.

He hopes to turn the old farmhouse in to a full-time family farm when his wife begins her law career.

“He’s incredible,” Danylle Carson said. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without him.”

Time and heart

Carson heard about the need for CASA volunteers when McCullum gave a presentation during one of the Carson’s classes.

“I was the first to raise my hand and say, ‘Where’s is the training and how do I sign up?’”

The process begins with an extensive application process that includes letters of recommendation and permission for an exhaustive background check, McCullum said. Those selected out of that process are invited to take part in the four-day, 30 hour training. Once the training is complete, there is a final interview to see if the volunteer and agency agree the program is a good fit. Those who complete the process are assigned a case almost immediately, McCullum said. Cases typically take about a year to work through the judicial system.

Carson completed her training in the spring of 2013 and got her first case two months later. She has since added a second case that has her overseeing a total of four children who range in age from 2 to 8.

Much of the work occurs when you first get a case, Carson said. She estimated she spent about 20 hours conducting interviews with family, friends and associates the first week after receiving each of her cases. The pace slows quickly after that. There are some weeks Carson will spend no time working on her cases and other weeks where she puts in as many as 10 hours. Carson said she meets with each of the children at least once a month.

“It’s my favorite part of the job,” she said.

She has seen some of the weight lift off the children in recent months and seen them laughing and playing like they did not before.

“To hear that was just like music,” Carson said. “It was just so rewarding.”

McCullum said CASA volunteers come from all walks of life and any career. They all tend to be kind and extremely devoted to children, she said.

“A lot of studies show that children do better if there’s one caring adult in their life,” McCullum said. “In many cases that person is a CASA volunteer.”

Carson says her experience has helped her be a better volunteer, but it is not essential.

“I know what kids are looking for more than someone who hasn’t been through what I have, but I really feel like anyone can do this,” she said. “It just takes a little bit of time and a little bit of heart.”

Carson is still trying to figure out exactly what kind of law she will practice. She hopes it will involve children. Regardless of what career path she takes, CASA will remain a big part of her life; at least as big as the power the nameless woman continues to hold after all these years.

“I owe her a lot,” Carson said. “My CASA kids owe her. And we all owe whoever showed her. I feel like this is a way of giving back to all the people who stepped into my life.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
ccrosby@centralmaine.com