This month we shine our spotlight on Advocate Lisa Phi!
Advocate Lisa Phi was surprised when she was matched to a teen boy. Her preference had been for younger children, but she thought back to training and about all the boys who don’t get to be matched with males because we just don’t have enough male CASAs. She knew it was going to be a challenge, and even wondered if it had been a mismatch. She thought to herself, “I just have to do my best.” When she met Travis,* he was 14 and living in a group home. He was nonchalant with a tough exterior. When she asked him if he knew what a CASA was, he said, “Yeah, you’re someone that buys me stuff and takes me out to have fun.” From that moment, Lisa began laying some boundaries, explaining her role as his advocate and his mentor. Travis took it in, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t try to push those boundaries. He would say things like, “I need a lego set to help with my ADD.” He was very sharp, and even though he hadn’t been in the system for very long, he had quickly figured out how things work. Lisa could also see that Travis knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. “If he wants to do something he will do it, and if he doesn’t, there is no way you can convince him otherwise.” Lisa knew she would have to work with this mindset if she was going to make a difference in his life. There would be no pushing him to do things or developing plans for him; she would need his buy-in.
Collaboration has been the secret ingredient in Lisa’s relationship with Travis. From the start, it was evident that Travis wanted to feel like an equal, to have a say in anything they did together, to be asked for his input. Outings were always decided together and started with Lisa asking, “What do you want to do today?” And yet she always had a back-up plan ready, depending on what was going on in Travis’ life at the moment, and what state of mind he was in. “Their needs are different each and every time you see them.” Living in a group home, Travis was not immune to behavioral issues, fights, awols, and general defiance. He didn’t like being told what to do and when to do it, and that created major problems for him. For Travis, that feeling of collaboration he felt with Lisa allowed him to open up to her and talk about these issues on their outings. It gave him a safe place to process some of his anger and other feelings. Lisa also knew that if she could put him in situations he felt comfortable in, it would make him want to open up. Travis loved restaurants and food, so sometimes they would have a special outing to Red Robin. While eating his burger topped with mushrooms, Travis began talking to Lisa about his childhood. He told her all about growing mushrooms with his family to make money when he was younger. The mushrooms he was eating were a connection to his past, and had he not been in that environment where he felt comfortable, doing something he enjoyed, he may not have taken the risk to open up and let Lisa in.
Lisa is a pro at building connections, not just with her youth but with his entire team. “Know all the people around [your child] and how they’re involved so you get the bigger picture of how to help your child.” She has strategically developed relationships with everyone on his team. Whichever group home he’s placed in, Lisa makes sure to know every staff member and introduce herself so that they also know who she is. She wants them to know that she is Travis’ person. Staff have been known to call her, just to let her know that Travis is having a bad day and could use her support. She makes sure to have conversations with them before picking him up and after dropping him off...how is he doing...is he getting along with everyone? The staff share with her, giving her a better understanding of what’s currently happening with Travis, and what kind of mindset he might be in. Then on outings, she might slowly open the door: “I heard there was an incident last week...do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he does, she gets an opportunity to talk to him about how he handled the situation, and other ways he could next time. She also develops relationships with psychologists, psychiatrists, placement workers, and anyone else on the team. “The more people you know in his life, the fuller picture you get.” And she has learned that you get the best information out of the people your youth connects with the most. Group home staff have said, “He does really well with [his psychiatrist],” which leads Lisa to ask Travis about his conversations with his psychiatrist. One conversation at a time, Lisa has become the expert on Travis.
Over the last two years of working with him, Lisa has seen a whole new Travis develop. He has become more independent, and more calm. He has developed more self-awareness and understanding of what he can do to succeed. He has learned to open up more and talk through his emotions instead of going straight to being aggressive or violent. And yet, she and Travis still have days where she feels like he has shut a door and closed himself off, and she can’t see the difference she is making. It’s at that point she reminds herself, and wants other CASAs to remember, to step back and look at the big picture. Being there and providing consistency is what matters. That’s the difference you’re making. She was reminded of this early on in their relationship. She had told Travis she would see him every two weeks in her role as his CASA. Several months into their relationship, she came to pick him up and was greeted with, “It’s been a while since you’ve been here!” She was puzzled and checked her calendar later, noticing that instead of 14 days since their last visit, it had been 16 days! Her word and her consistency mattered to Travis two years ago just as much as they do today.
Lisa’s Case Supervisor, Erik Jones, shares this about her:
“During my time working with Lisa, I have found her to be a fierce and dedicated advocate and educational rights holder for her youth. She has been there throughout Travis’ struggles and moves throughout Southern California, arranging meetings with school representatives to ensure that he had everything he needed to thrive in school, and planning fun activities to give him the time he needs to be a kid. As an advocate, she helped Travis mature into a responsible and driven young man who dreams of one day going to college and having an apartment of his own. She is a very hard worker and has been a pleasure to work with since she became a CASA.”
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.