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CASA: Advocating for our most vulnerable children

Court Appointed Special Advocates speak up for abused and neglected children

Published: March 22, 2020, 6:00am

Sponsored by YWCA Clark County and Clark County CASA Imagine that you are a six-year-old child. The state has taken you away from your family because it was deemed an unsafe environment. You may be living with relatives now, or in foster care. Amidst this upheaval, you find yourself in a strange home, perhaps a new school, possibly separated from siblings, and fearful about what comes next.

CASAs, (Court Appointed Special Advocates), are there to speak up for you and provide a consistent adult who is advocating only for you.

The court appoints someone from CASA, a local nonprofit, to represent a child’s interests in the role of Guardian ad Litem, as required by Washington state law. Experts define a Guardian ad Litem as an objective, impartial person the court appoints to act as a representative for minor children in a custody proceeding.

Founded in 1977, CASA provides highly trained volunteers to serve as advocates for children who are in state care as a result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. CASA volunteers make recommendations to the court based on the needs and best interests of the child.

Our volunteers are a child’s consistent adult

Can a volunteer truly represent a child’s
interests in the often bewildering justice

These volunteers can and do so successfully every week in Clark County. Today, the program is seeking to build out its volunteer base by adding another 70 CASA volunteers to its roster. The information and sign-up forms for the role are located on CASA’s website (casaclarkcounty.org). Last year, Clark County CASA served 760 children with 130 volunteers and seven staff advocates.

“We need to reduce caseloads of staff by increasing our volunteers so the children can have more individual attention,” says Sheryl Thierry, CASA program director.

But, she cautions, people need to do a serious gut check before signing on.

“Someone who is successful as aCASA brings very special qualities to the position,” she says. “It is a tremendous commitment in terms of the time and the emotion you will invest in the work. But for those who are right for the role, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.”

A significant time and emotional commitment

CASAs (the correct term for these volunteers) undergo a thorough interview, background check, and orientation by the CASA Volunteer Specialist. They undergo 50 hours of training before they are sworn in as an officer of the court. They are then paired with a CASA staff member as their coach and supervisor who spends several weeks providing mentoring and opportunities to shadow them on cases before being paired with a child. Supervision and mentoring continues throughout the CASA’s time with
the program to ensure they can fearlessly and consistently advocate on behalf of the children they are  paired with, and become that one consistent adult presence in their life.

The time commitment is considerable. The CASA Program provides 40 hours of program-specific training and 13 hours of YWCA core training to prepare a volunteer for the role. Volunteers accepted into the program must complete 12 hours of in-service training annually. Further, they are asked to make a two year commitment to the position to help maintain that consistency for the children. Monthly, a volunteer can expect to spend anywhere from five to 12 hours on a case, including a visit with the child, attending meetings, and appearing in court.

Then there is the emotional commitment. CASAs agree that it is impossible not to become attached to the children, not to care deeply about their plight. Yet they must distance themselves.For instance, CASAs are not allowed to give children gifts, provide transportation, or initiate physical contact. Once the child’s case has been resolved, the CASA must say goodbye and not initiate further contact with the child or family members. Some children will invite their CASAs to their graduation or birthday parties after their case is dismissed, which is acceptable and meaningful to both parties.

The work itself can take a toll on volunteers and staff. Representing a child in a court of law offers a rare insight into the severe domestic issues that plague so nmany families. Decisions made by court officials and social workers often seem unfair to the child, or not in the child’s best interests. The CASA can influence a matter by submitting regular reports to the court and making a recommendation. The court makes the decisions, not the CASAs.

Children ‘will tear at your heartstrings’

Judy Walter, a CASA Volunteer since 2014, says representing children has changed her life, as well as redirected the lives of the children. But she agrees it is not for everyone. Yet for the right person, there is no more rewarding volunteer opportunity.

“I’ve lost some sleep, shed some tears, but have never considered quitting. These kids and families need CASA volunteers like me,” she says. “It’s a deep commitment and it will tear at your heartstrings. But these children can get lost without that consistent, caring adult in their lives.”

In Clark County, CASA is a program of YWCA Clark County, which provides support services and funding for the local group.

But dedicated volunteers represent the true heart of Clark County CASA. If you think you can make a difference by standing up for a lonely, frightened child, contact CASA today.

We will get you started down the road to a rich, rewarding volunteer experience.

Court Appointed Special Advocates
YWCA Clark County

Please contact Sheryl Thierry
Program Director
Phone: (360) 906-9141
Email: sthierry@ywcaclarkcounty.org
Website: casaclarkcounty.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/casaclarkcounty/

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