When Michael Hackett offered to give his wife a ride to class, he never anticipated that he would become a student himself. He never expected that he’d take the class with her and become a court appointed special advocate or that his exemplary service helping kids during the chaotic Hurricane Katrina would lead to him winning the 2006 G.F. Bettineski Child Advocate of the Year Award.
Michael and Jan Hackett were ready for retirement. They contemplated taking time for the grandchildren, time for travel and time alone together. The days of working full-time were behind them.
But as much as they wanted the good things in life, they felt the need to continue giving back. Their dedication to community service remained strong. In their hometown of Jefferson Parish, La., the Hacketts decided to find some kind of volunteer work that would suit their talents.
“Working with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) fulfills many of my ordination vows as a deacon in the Episcopal Church,” explains Michael. “Deacons were started to care for widows, orphans and the poor.” It was clear that the CASA program was a perfect match for him. “I am still surprised that more deacons of every faith are not working with CASA.”
Side by side, Jan and Michael successfully completed the training, and they were sworn in together in 2003. For the next three years, they gained invaluable experience dealing with at-risk kids. “Some of the issues we have dealt with have been substance abuse in parents, as well as children who have been sexually abused and are now sexual perpetrators. Many of my CASA children have to deal with family members who are incarcerated,” Michael says.
“Michael takes the role of advocate very seriously. He values the importance of his relationships with his CASA children,” says Cynthia Lee Chauvin, CASA Jefferson Advocate Supervisor. “Jan is his right hand, and they have remained a dynamic yet autonomous duo. They have their own CASA cases and work side by side doing some of the deepest and most effective advocacy that we have witnessed.”
As long-time residents of Louisiana, Michael and Jan also had a lot of experience dealing with hurricanes. CASA advocates were always able to reconnect quickly after a storm, and they assumed that with Katrina it would be no different. “We had made it through previous hurricanes. Normally, after about three or four days, everyone would be back in contact. For Katrina, everybody was prepared for about three days, but nobody was really prepared for the flooding caused by the levees breaking and the massive evacuations.”
The once-thriving service was torn asunder, much as the rest of the Gulf Coast. “After Katrina, we weren’t able to work in our area. We were mandated by the National Guard to stay away; it was not safe to go back. It took about three weeks for the water to get pumped out. Most of the kids were evacuated. Those that were with families were evacuated with them,” explains Michael. The Jefferson Parish CASA community had boasted a staff of 12 and more than a hundred advocates before the storm, servicing three sections of juvenile court. After Katrina, they were down to a handful of people.
“Katrina devastated the lives of our system’s children. Within a week of the storm CASA Jefferson was faced with the reality of displaced child victims whose whereabouts were unknown,” says Ms. Chauvin. This is the time when Michael Hackett truly distinguished himself as the most valuable volunteer in the CASA system. “Even with a death in his family, a flooded home and being a displaced victim of the storm himself, Michael volunteered to serve on the CASA Jefferson Search Committee.”
There was no way for those remaining to know where their kids were or how to help them. It was thanks to technology—cell phones and text messaging—that the CASA volunteers were able to reconnect. “Our CASA program staff was spread throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. A nucleus of staff and volunteers scheduled a meeting in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana CASA office. At our first meeting, we identified tasks: locate as many advocates as possible, research shelter locations and put in place public service announcements of our 800 number for reporting the location of CASA kids and their foster parents,” says Michael.
Those tasks were easier said than done. New Orleans was still a disaster area. There was no way legally to get into their offices for the CASA files. “We risked arrest for violating curfew to gather important records from our damaged offices,” Michael admits. “At that point, we were looking for about 500 children.”
“Michael visited shelters throughout the state distributing information and interviewing individuals in an attempt to identify the whereabouts of our children,” says Ms. Chauvin. “Once he located the children, Michael also made impromptu visits to the locations that housed our children to assess their special needs and reconnect them to their advocate, our program and various community services.
During this time of crisis and tragedy, Michael displayed tremendous dedication to the children of this state and provided exemplary advocacy to promote the welfare of all children.” Through hard work, persistence and a little bit of luck, he eventually found the kids from the program. He is credited with saving 180 children.
More than a year after the hurricane, Michael and Jan Hackett remains deeply involved main deeply involved with their CASA volunteering. They’ve stayed in touch with the children who are no longer in the state. “We are visiting some of our kids in Mississippi, Washington, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, Alabama and Georgia. These visitations of our displaced children are made possible by a grant from National CASA,” says Michael.
As for winning the Advocate of the Year award, Michael is modest. “I am blessed. Many others hold me up and support me in all of my efforts. The main one is my family. I benefit from so many others, such as my CASA family and my church family.”
The work goes on. According to Michael, Louisiana is still scarred. “We are struggling to come back. We are pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are fighting an uphill battle, but we will win.”
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in January-February 2007