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Hanif Bent, 30, is a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. He knew a few years back that he wanted to serve his community in other ways.
“When I was stationed in Virginia, I had a friend who was working as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate,” Bent said. “It seemed like something I’d be interested in, so I went to a few meetings with him and I decided that after my deployment, this was something I wanted to get involved with.”
As a CASA volunteer, Bent, who lives in Waldorf, is charged with advocating for children in the foster care system, helping serve as a liaison for them in areas including court dates about their living situations, and helping them academically.
Although there are similar programs nationally, the CASA program in Southern Maryland is an effort of the Center for Children.
Heather Balderson, the CASA program director, said that last year 72 volunteers served 96 children in the region. Balderson helped to prepare Bent, who began his 30 hours of training last fall and officially began working with a child in February.
“This is a program that appeals to all different people at all different levels,” Balderson said. “We could definitely use more men. Primarily, we have a lot of women volunteers because the program tends to pull at their heartstrings a bit more.”
Having worked with Bent firsthand, Balderson said she’s confident that he is an apt volunteer for the program.
“He’s done an excellent job so far,” Balderson said. “He’s dedicated, he’s got the time, he works well with teenagers, and in fact is working with one now. We’re hoping that, given his career path, [Bent] could be a good influence for the teenage boys we have in the program and guide them onto the right paths in life.”
Bent sees his charge at least twice a month and is committed to the program for a minimum of a year. Since beginning to work with the boy, Bent said he has seen the initial challenges ease up.
“At that first meeting, you just know there’s some skepticism at work,” Bent said. “You take time and build the relationship. Breaking down the communication barrier has helped a lot.”
When Bent first started working with his teenager, the boy was living in a group home. He has since moved in with a foster family in Charles County.
“I’ve been helping figure out how to improve his quality of life,” Bent said. “There’s a lot of red tape you have to cut through in terms of dealing with the system, and that’s been the biggest challenge.”
Although part of Bent’s duties include assisting the boy in legal cases and providing recommendations to the court about his care, Bent has not yet had to go to court as an advocate for him. Bent said the first court hearing they will handle together is in the near future.
“We give each other a different outlook,” Bent said. “Getting to play big brother for him in a way is pretty good. Once he’s out of high school ... determining his future will be difficult, like helping to make him independent. But I’ll take that all as it comes.”
Once his time working with this teenager is done, Bent said he’d like the chance to work with other children.