Making a difference with CASA

Jill Woody was going about her life when she saw a CASA banner hanging on Market Street.

“Get involved,” it said, “make a difference, be a CASA volunteer.”

“I don’t know why,” said Woody. “Something so strong just said ‘go back, get that number.’ So I did. I went back right then. I could have just as easily gotten the number on the way back. But I turned around and got the number.”

That was in 2008. She’s been a CASA ever since.

CASAs – Court Appointed Special Advocates – are lay people sworn in by a President Judge to advocate for the best interest of children who have been abused or neglected and have active cases in the juvenile court system. CASA volunteers are given access to a child’s medical, psychiatric, academic, and casework records, and conduct independent investigations into a child’s situation before meeting the child and all relevant caregivers and family members. CASA volunteers use everything they have to provide an overall report stating the child’s resources and barriers, stating facts as well as the child’s wishes before giving a short personal opinion based on all of the information as a whole.

While CASA volunteers are independent agents in the placement process, they work closely with the court, caseworkers, therapists, attorneys, teachers, service providers, and other involved professionals. They are directly supervised by a CASA Program Director. Their goal is to find permanent placement for a child as soon as possible. Permanent placement can be anything from reunification with their biological parents to adoption or appointment of a legal custodian.

It used to be normal for kids to be in foster care for years at a time, said CASA Program Director Lisa Thompson. Since CASA, she said, it’s down to an average of 24 months.

CASA volunteers come from all walks of life, and offer all sorts of specialties and skill sets to the program. Woody was an RN before becoming a CASA. Of becoming an advocate, Woody said the experience is “almost like falling in love.”

CASA volunteers are asked to provide the sort of engagement with the system that parents are not able to. If there is an IEP meeting, CASAs are asked to attend that. If there’s a court date, they’re there. “Our kids are never going to walk into a courtroom alone,” said Woody. That can be an overwhelming experience for children. CASAs, said Thompson, are asked to “see things in a different way. We aren’t mandated by the law to see things in any certain way.” Social workers, said Thompson, are mandated by the law to do all they can to reunify families that have been affected by a child in placement.

Attorneys are mandated to protect the legal rights of the child during the process. Every individual in the process comes with a different goal. The only thing a CASA volunteer wants is to see the child in a permanent, safe living situation.

CASA volunteers expect to commit 18 to 24 months to the program when they accept a case, and they expect to provide three to five hours of service to their case per week. CASA volunteers can only take on one case at a time. This, said Thompson, prevents the overwhelm that can take over case management and other paid service providers.

Since 2008, Woody said, she’s worked eight cases. Many, she said, were for children who are now adults and remain in contact with her. “They’re grown up,” said Woody. “They have kids of their own. One of the boys who was a teenager when I worked on his case brought his significant other with him and introduced me as his CASA. She didn’t know what that was and he started telling her. ‘She’s the woman who did everything for us,’ Woody said was his description.” The lifelong connections that Woody has with the children she serves is what keeps her in CASA. That, said Woody and “the hugs. I do it for the hugs.”

CASA training is provided over the course of a 30 hour program and CASA volunteers are expected to attend professional development sessions yearly. “It’s a professional volunteer experience,” said Thompson. But, she said, for those who don’t think they want or can devote the time and energy to being an advocate, the program also has a board of directors and outside committees for which they’re always seeking new hands.

“You don’t have to be an advocate,” said Thompson. It’s because of the people who serve on the board and provide the administrative support that advocates are able to do what they do.

For more information on CASA of Warren and Forest Counties find them on Facebook or visit www.casaofwarrenandforest.org.


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