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Del Norte Unified School District Coffee & Conversation Podcast (and Transcript)

Updated: 4 days ago

Thomas C. Rector and Christine Slette of CASA Del Norte were recently guests on the Coffee & Conversation podcast hosted by Jeff Harris. Harris, Superintendent of Schools for the Del Norte Unified School District, spoke with Slette and Rector about their experiences with CASA as well as supporting the community in positively impacting youth and their parents.

We invite you to listen on any of these platforms or read the transcript below:


Jeff Harris: Welcome to Coffee and Conversation, a podcast brought to you by the Del Norte County Office of Education and Del Norte Unified School District. I am Jeff Harris, the superintendent of schools for Del Norte.

As this is a month for a lot of things, it is Child Abuse Prevention Month, it is Autism Acceptance Month, there are a lot of things going on this month. A lot of times, these things lead us to talk to partners about issues surrounding children and families. So, joining me today I have Christine Slette, the executive director for CASA Del Norte, and Thomas Rector.

A lot of folks may know Christine, a lot of folks may know Thomas, but just a little bit more about Thomas. Father of five, adoptive parent, foster care mentor and trainer. Just the father of five alone, Tom, I’ve got to give you some credit for. I’ve got two and that’s enough.

Thomas C. Rector: We have to give my wife credit, too.

Jeff Harris: There you go. Tom actually has a pretty unique perspective on child advocacy. He’s a CEO, national speaker and presenter on BioSocial Cognition Theory, so we’ll talk a little bit about that. He’s the founder of Accrescent Institute, and prior to that, Tom worked here in Del Norte as the former executive director for CASA.

Tom, I’m glad to have you onboard. Christine, thanks for giving up your time today as we dive in. I don’t mean to shortchange you, Christine. I know that you’re a fixture in a lot of things that happen in the county.

Let’s dive in and talk a little bit about the role that CASA plays and why CASA is necessary in Del Norte.

Christine Slette: This is not really a subject that people like to talk about, but it’s an important subject, especially in Del Norte County. We have really high rates of poverty and substance abuse issues, and a lot of families who are struggling to parent their kids, so we have high rates of child abuse in Del Norte County.

I think it’s gotten a little lower. I’ve been doing this for about 16 years, and when I started, we were at 140 to 150, sometimes up to 160 kids in the system. Right now, I think the numbers are around 120. That just means those are children who have been removed from their homes and they’re placed in and out of home placement in foster care. That’s when my program CASA gets involved. When the court takes jurisdiction of the child, then CASA can be assigned to a case, so that’s when our role exists.

Jeff Harris: I think, honestly, when CASA gets involved, that 120 to 140 number is deceptively low because we know that just children, basically birth to 18 or even let’s say 20, we probably have close to 6,000 overall in the county. We know that we have some of the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in California, we have some of the highest rates of neglect, of childhood obesity, a lot of those things.

I think when we talk about tiers of intervention, ultimately, when these youth get to the point where they need someone from CASA to provide that support, all of those sorts of traumas, those historical traumas, those personal traumas have built up to the point where that child has now been removed and they need this court appointed special advocate.

Christine Slette: They’re definitely in crisis. They enter the system, and the goal of the system is to help provide services to the parents and the children. To get the parents to a safe place so hopefully the children can reunify with them, but also these kids, as you say, have experienced adverse childhood experiences, so they need support systems put in place. CASA’s role is to advocate for those support systems.

It's really amazing. I cannot believe that I get to work with all of these amazing volunteers. These are volunteers that out of the goodness of their heart step up, they go through this crazy 40-hour training, and then they get sworn in as an officer of the court and they become the eyes and ears of the court. They get to know the kids and they start advocating for their best interests through every component of that case, which is really beautiful. They’re another set of eyes and ears on the case.

Jeff Harris: I know we have several folks who work here in the office or work with the schools that are advocates as well. We get to hear almost daily about some of the great things that are going on as far as advocating for kids.

Tom, I think that’s where you come in, too. Right? I’m going to read a little blurb from the website.

It says basically BioSocial Cognition, a pretty unique way of looking at things, is based on biology, neuroscience, and genetics, and it provides a process to understand where behavior comes from. I think that’s what a lot of people struggle with, it’s these kids that get in trouble persistently over time that lead to these adverse outcomes, whether it’s removal from the home or, ultimately, it could be incarceration or even recidivism through incarceration.

And how memories impact past, present, and future decision making. Again, talking about that trauma, those family situations, the things that lead them to where they’re working with the advocates and you, Christine. There are ways to address that. Right, Tom? Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Thomas C. Rector: Yes. I think you did a great job of summarizing it. The fundamental part of it is to understand that our brain is making the decisions. Those decisions are expressed in some sort of behavioral response to the environment they’re in, the situations they’re in, how they feel about them.

What’s important and what we teach within BioSocial Cognition, and this links up to what Christine talks about, is that we need to understand that there is a dynamic that is going on between the individual’s personality, their genetics, the biology of the person, of humans, and of their memories. The humanity of us is a fixed thing and our individual genetics is a fixed thing. The place that we get to make a difference in anybody’s life – not just children, but ourselves and anybody that is around us – is in our memories.

The more we understand, the more we know what the memory background of any one individual or a specific child is, the better we have of understanding why they chose a particular behavior. Instead of reacting to the behavior, we can understand where it came from and not be so reactive but be more proactive with regard to finding a way to guide that person or that child forward in a productive fashion.

Jeff Harris: From either of your perspectives, when you’re working with children and the advocate, and even the family if you’re talking about reunification, what do those conversations look like? I can imagine a little bit, but can you share a little bit about what that might sound like from the child’s perspective?

Christine Slette: I would share that, first of all, it’s important to recognize that the children and families are in crisis. This is such a stressful time for them, one of the worst times that they could possibly be dealing with. Then you have all of these people who are coming around, trying to offer support and giving advice. In the conversation, it takes a lot of listening and a lot of patience.

I met Tom back in 2008 at a training. I was really surprised when I entered this work how negative the system is. It’s not that anyone is doing it on purpose, it’s just the response. I was just a little concerned, and I still am 16 years later. It’s just because we need to do a better job of making ourselves aware of the conversations we’re having with families, how we respond to children, and how we respond to the parents who are in crisis.

It takes a lot of tactful skill, but it starts with understanding. That’s where I brought Tom in and I started the positive response initiative, which we’ve provided trainings for the Del Norte County School District, social services department, we just did one a couple of months ago, and for foster parents. Most importantly, we provide it to our CASA advocates so that when they’re working with the children they can be mindful of what our kids are going through and what their parents are going through so that when they’re having conversations with children and parents, they can use their tactful skills to be aware of helping to calm the situation, be mindful about behaviors, and that type of thing.

It’s an ongoing process. It’s not easy, especially when we just had a big gathering today at CASA, and all of our volunteers were talking about the struggles they have working with the kids. They tear up and they’re really passionate about the work that they’re doing with their kids, and they end up developing really deep relationships with their kids, which is really important because they become that positive adult in their life. We all know that having a positive adult in your life can help reduce ACEs, so CASA can be very vital.

Jeff Harris: It kind of goes back to helping youth be able to break some cycles and to help themselves. While the title BioSocial Cognition piece might sound a little science or a little stilted, Tom, I think this is something that almost every child can ultimately grasp along with families.

Thomas C. Rector: Absolutely. From 10 or 12 years old on up, it’s completely comprehendible. Obviously, they comprehend it within their scope of worldliness.

I’ve taught it to the Fortuna Junior High 7th graders. I did one day where each class came in and I taught to each one of those classes. So, to give you an idea, yes, it is something that is easy to understand, it’s new, it’s based off of scientific information that we know and have had, a lot of it we’ve had quite a while, and it’s put into a context so that it’s relatable to the individual.

I’ve spoken to the kids that were put in probation lockup. That really made a difference for them to see. I’ve spoken to the Hispanic community multiple times, sometimes through translation. It’s very understandable. It’s a different paradigm, but it makes sense and it connects to the reality that everybody lives.

Jeff Harris: I think the cool part about it is when somebody says, “Oh, that’s why I did that.” They’re connecting all of those things that played into that one decision.

Thomas C. Rector: Yes. I was doing a training in Eureka some years ago. There was a foster mom who came in and she brought her kids because she didn’t have coverage. She was the last one out of the room, and as she was gathering things up, I filled the time in. I turned to the girl that was with her, a 10-year-old, and I said, “Did you get anything out of this?” Her response was, “Yeah. Now I understand why I treated my mom the way I did.”

That was a big wow moment for me. Once that perspective comes to a person, they own it and use it for the rest of their life.

Jeff Harris: That’s a life-changer. That’s kind of what the CASA volunteers do when they’re working with the children that they’re with. Also, the families. Christine, how much work does a CASA advocate do with the family versus the child?

Christine Slette: Typically, CASA is assigned to the child, so we don’t really work with the family. We focus on the child, but sometimes our advocacy efforts stretch to foster parents and parents, whoever is in that child’s life. So, it’s not just focused on the child because if all of the adults around that child are getting supported, then there is going to be a better system in place for that child.

Jeff Harris: Right.

Christine Slette: I would say one of the things that I’ve really loved about Tom’s training, the reason why I brought it into CASA was that self-reflection piece. That’s where we’re not just saying you need to change or you need to do better, it’s really helping us be more aware of our own emotions and our own responsibility to help better serve these children. That’s basically what I bring his training in for is that self-awareness and awareness of what kids and families are going through.

Jeff Harris: Right. Again, I could be off. You are both well beyond my abilities here. A lot of times in schools that’s called metacognitive thinking. Thinking about your thinking so that you understand where you’re coming from and you’re not just reacting. I think a lot of the children that you both work with, that’s where they’ve come from, that reaction that they get from the adult, whether that’s been a negative reaction or in some cases, unfortunately, a violent reaction. They live in those very reactive societies. This allows that self-reflective piece, it allows internalization of why I made a choice. Am I kind of on track there?

Christine Slette: You are, 100%. What’s really hard is that these kids are going through a nightmare, but the system itself is a nightmare. So, when we bring a volunteer advocate into this to help support the child, the family, and extended people around that child, and the system is failing them, that can be a letdown.

There’s so much emotion with the child, with what should be happening for the child that doesn’t happen for the child, maybe sometimes the child might be in a bad mood and they take it out on their CASA advocate, or there has been a referral sent in for mental health services and it’s two months later and the child still is not getting mental health services or medical needs met sometimes, it can be really frustrating for the volunteer advocate. That constant reality of keeping their own emotions in check is something that they literally have to do nonstop in this role, but they do it and they’re amazing.

Jeff Harris: Because, again, this isn’t a drive-by conversation. This is not I’m going to teach you this one skill and then we’re done. This is an ongoing component.

Christine Slette: Right.

Jeff Harris: This is a life-changer. Would both of you be willing to share an example or two about a situation where you’ve really seen it turn a child’s life around, really turn it in that positive direction?

Christine Slette: I’ve had 10 of my own cases, but one of my first cases was a teenager. I was on her case for 10 years and I got to demonstrate that calm, reflective behavior over and over again. Oftentimes, it was the adults that she would come up against. I learned by the time she was aging out of the system that she was able to keep her composure and keep herself in check and be able to reflect on her own reactions even in the courtroom. It was absolutely beautiful.

After she ended up aging out of the system, she didn’t have adults around her, but she was still able to communicate well and apply a lot of the tools that we had worked together on.

Jeff Harris: A lot of growth.

Christine Slette: Yes. But again, I was with her for 10 years. Impacting those memories takes a lot of repetition and a lot of talk through. It was a long struggle with her, but she learned a lot, and it’s beautiful.

Jeff Harris: Tom?

Thomas C. Rector: Yes. Mine is I had a gentleman come to me, he had heard about the material and the approach. He didn’t know anything about it, but he had heard about it and he was really looking for a solution. He was in an ex situation with a 4-year-old boy, and he could clearly understand that the dynamics of the ex situation were not good for the boy and it was creating behavioral kinds of issues. He wanted to do something that would help his son be successful.

I met with him and did multiple trainings, very incremental trainings, giving him time to absorb, process, think it and recognize it. I probably met with him a half dozen times, then it was done, and I didn’t hear any more from him. That was in 2008. Three weeks ago, he reached out to me and said, “My son’s 20th birthday is coming up, and I just wanted to let you know he’s a successful adult going to college. You gave me input so that I could create the environment so that my son would be successful.”

That’s very meaningful.

Jeff Harris: Oh, yes. Those are two great stories. I shouldn’t say stories, they’re not stories. Two great results. One where a child learned over 10 years and another where the parent learned and was able to change that trajectory in the family. It’s a great thing.

Let me ask this. Are these trainings provided to the public here in Del Norte, or does someone need to be a CASA advocate?

Christine Slette: No. I try to invite Tom in as often as I can. Before COVID hit, he was doing them quite regularly for us and at very low cost. I would call him and say CASA has no funding, but I need you to do a training, and he would always be right there doing it.

Our goal is to get these going back in the community, so our goal is to open it up to the community. We just had one. I can’t remember how many people were there. I think the room had about 30 people and it was a mixture of social workers, I think there was some school staff, and foster parents, and CASA advocates, so quite big dynamics.

I’ve also brought him in to do trainings for juvenile hall, the Sheriff Explorers and Police Explorers. We’re also looking at doing a training for youth in the community as well, so we have some ideas down the road of what we want to do. Now that COVID isn’t bothering us with all of those restrictions, we’re able to get back into the groove of things.

Jeff Harris: That’s great. Tom, I can tell you, I know that my staff have always enjoyed coming and learning from you. Again, the work that CASA and the CASA advocates do with our youth are just absolutely amazing. These are students that are struggling, these are families that are struggling, and these are staff that are struggling with working with our students who are struggling. We just really appreciate what you both do and what everybody in your organizations do to support.

With that, believe it or not, we are well over time that we usually go on a podcast. Any last thoughts or any last pieces of advice that you would give to anyone listening?

Christine Slette: Go ahead, Tom.

Thomas C. Rector: I would put in if you go to our website, you’ll see that this information can be delivered virtually in small groups. It doesn’t require coming to a particular location. It can be done as a one-on-one in person or one-on-one virtually, which of course keeps the cost down. It’s really trying to fit the situations, fit the needs of the audience and their particular perspective.

I am scheduled to be at the California Foster Youth Education Summit in Sacramento with Christine next week. Then we have another one that’s going to happen in Corvallis with the Oregon Parenting Educators Conference. So, we’re presenting around the country for various different audiences. Just reaching out, looking ahead, seeing if there’s an interest is available to anybody at any time in addition to what Christine is always organizing and setting up.

Christine Slette: If I may, I would love to just throw in there that Jeff said this at the beginning, but April is Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month, and I’m also a member of the Child Abuse Prevention Council. Just a reminder that parents always need help and that’s okay because we don’t know what we’re doing. There are some really great resources in our community. I think the Family Resource Center of the Redwoods, the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Del Norte, there’s a lot of different resources. It’s okay to seek out and get more information, attend these trainings and question your parenting, and get that support when needed.

We really appreciate that you invited us here today to talk about this important subject. Thank you. Of course, I’m always happy to talk about CASA and the amazing work that our volunteers do.

Jeff Harris: If folks want more information, they can check out Tom’s website at There’s always for our local CASA.

Thank you both very much for joining us. Tom, we look forward to having you up here a lot more. Thanks for all that you both do.

Christine Slette: Absolutely.

Thomas C. Rector: Thank you very much.

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