It’s 9 a.m. in a Dallas County courtroom, as a group huddles around the judge’s bench. Among them a woman, barely 20, hangs her head. The hair that falls around her face needs washing; her sweatshirt smells unclean. She wipes a hand under her eyes, then to her jeans.”

“Are you Karen Smith?” the judge asks.

“Yes.”

“Are you the mother of 4-year-old Jessica Smith, 2-year-old Terrence Smith and 1-year-old Crystal Smith?”

“Yes.”

This hearing is the first of several to decide if the Smith kids will ever go home again. The questioning continues a few minutes more, and then the courtroom falls silent. The judge takes a breath before speaking again: “OK, I want a drug test and psychological evaluation on the mom. And parenting classes. Full medical and psychological evaluations of the kids, who will remain in foster care. And I want CASA on this one.”

In Dallas County, scenes like this one play out repeatedly. The judge won’t see the case again until the next hearing. The Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworker will do his best for the children involved, but he has more than a hundred others to track.

The newly assigned Dallas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteer, however, will do whatever it takes to make sure the kids don’t get lost in the system. She’ll work on that case, and only that case, until the children are permanently placed in a home.

And being a volunteer, she won’t be paid a dime. What she will get is the knowledge that she made a difference in the lives of three children.

Lake Highlands resident Mona Baker is one of those volunteers. Though she works full time as a paralegal, a job she calls “very demanding,” Baker still finds time to work as an advocate.

“It doesn’t require as much time as you might think,” she says. “Besides, I always joke that I work to support my habit of volunteering. It’s my passion.”

Baker says she has been lucky. All six cases she has handled have resulted in a happy ending: a safe, caring, permanent home for the children. But that doesn’t mean it was easy getting them there.

One especially tough case involved a 12-year-old girl named Lindsey. She and 4-year-old Carissa, her half-sister, were removed from their home due to their mother’s long-term abuse and neglect.

Lindsey had been severely sexually abused. She also had been living as the adult of the family. If she managed to get to school in the mornings, it was because she woke up on her own, made sure Carissa ate something, and got herself out the door on time. Often, though, she stayed home, knowing she couldn’t depend on her mother to take care of her sister.

The girls were placed in foster care, but it wasn’t long before Lindsey had to be moved. She was having behavior problems in the home, not uncommon in abused children her age.

Carissa was lucky; she was placed with her dad. But Lindsey had no place to go and was put in an emergency youth shelter.

“I didn’t want her there at all,” Baker says. “I saw her every other day when she was there. I worked very hard to get her out, but foster homes are few and far between. Nobody wants a 12-year-old girl.”

On one of Baker’s visits, Lindsey told her what she thought a good mom would be like.

“A good mom would get her kids up in the morning, feed them breakfast, get them to school on time and take them to church,” she said. “And she’d let them play sports and go to some camps.”

That’s not too much to ask, Baker thought. She was determined to find that kind of parent for her.

She checked to see if Lindsey could move in with her dad, who lived south of Houston. She learned he had been in prison, but had since remarried and turned his life around. Both he and his wife wanted Lindsey to live with them.

A home study was performed, and the couple were deemed suitable guardians for Lindsey. Baker was relieved, feeling it was the best place for her.

But as so often happens, there was one delay after another. Baker made repeated calls to CPS and anyone else who could help get things moving.

Finally, Lindsey was allowed to go to her dad’s.

But CPS wouldn’t transport her, so Baker drove her there herself.

“I met her dad at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday at a truck stop in Huntsville,” Baker says. “He had been working since 3:30 that morning cleaning oilfield equipment, and he drove there from work in an old ragged car with no air conditioning. It was the hottest day of the year. But he was happy to do it, so he could take her home.”

Two years later, Baker got a phone call. And panicked. It was from Lindsey, whom she hadn’t spoken to for more than six months. Had everything fallen apart?

Just the opposite. Lindsey was calling to ask if she would sponsor her. She was going to church camp. “Oh, you bet I could,” Baker says. “You bet I could.”

Today, Lindsey finally has the home she’d always dreamed of. And, Baker knows she played an important role in making that happen.

“I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from working with CASA,” she says. “It’s not like donating money and hoping it goes to the right place,” she says. “You know what’s happening here. You see it.”

Baker’s story isn’t unusual, says Beverly Levy, executive director of Dallas CASA.

“Many people come here wanting to help a child,” she says. “And they have no idea what it will do to them. Being a part of this is really remarkable. It teaches you that no matter what life throws at you, opportunities are still ahead.”

It also offers a first-hand look at the compassion and dedication at work, she says.

“You see the best and the worst of life here. You see the worst of it in what the children have been through, but you see the best of it in our volunteers and our staff. I’m truly overwhelmed in the midst of such good souls.”