“She’s the only one who is going to listen to you,” Jan Cornwell remembers a foster parent telling the child. “Talk to her.”
Cornwell’s position as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, means that her sole focus is as supporter of abused and neglected children throughout their court cases.
While the National CASA Association has been active since 1977, the program came to Summit County in 1999 as CASA of the Continental Divide. It serves children in the 5th Judicial District, which includes Summit, Lake, Eagle and Clear counties. The program currently is seeking volunteers who are interested in becoming CASAs and attending a training Saturday, April 26.
Cornwell first heard of the CASA program while living in Boulder. At the time, she was busy with work and travel and couldn’t make the required time commitment. When she moved to Summit County eight years ago, she mentioned to a friend how she regretted not being able to volunteer.
“We have a CASA,” her friend replied. “We don’t have to go anywhere.”
Seven years later, Cornwell is still part of the program. When asked why she chose to volunteer as a CASA, she replied,“Because they specifically help children, and they help children that are in a very difficult space. … Sometimes, as we’ve learned, you can’t get those kids out of that space, but hopefully you can put a ray of hope into that.”
Cornwell has dealt with a number of cases during her time as a CASA volunteer, each one with a unique set of circumstances and challenges.
CASAs work with judges, attorneys and social workers in cases of abused and neglected children. It is the CASA’s job to investigate the situation to determine the best course of action for the child’s future. This means interviewing people — the child, parents or foster parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors and any adults who might be involved — and submitting a court report with recommendations based on the information uncovered.
“The CASA is responsible for focusing on the child and making sure that the child’s time line is kept at the fore of the case,” said Kathy Reed, executive director of CASA of the Continental Divide. “Everybody plays their part and (the) CASA’s part is very valuable in that whole system.”
Oftentimes, the CASA is the most knowledgeable of the details of the case as it changes hands among judges, attorneys and caseworkers.
“CASAs are a really steadying factor and they bring a historical perspective to some of the new people that come on cases,” said Cornwell. “They’ll have foster parents that come and go, they’ll have therapists that come and go.”
But the CASA volunteer remains the same, a steadying factor that helps children who are experiencing constant turmoil and uncertainty due to their circumstances, Reed said.
Another helpful aspect of a CASA is the fact that they are volunteers, she added.
“They’re the only one in the room that’s not being paid to be there and I think families get that, and they know that the CASA is there because they care about the kids and I think that gives them an ‘in’ that caseworkers may not have,” Reed said. “CASA can be an extra set of eyes, CASA can help find resources in communities. They’re able to do those kinds of things, that are very supportive of the caseworker.”
Currently, CASA of the Continental Divide has 51 volunteers who work with the four-person regular staff consisting of Reed, two advocate managers and an administrative assistant.
“We estimate that we need about 20 (new) volunteers a year to be prepared for new cases or when CASAs go off of a case to give them a break,” Reed said. She hopes Saturday’s training will yield around 10 volunteers.
Anyone over the age of 21 can be a volunteer, with no particular work experience necessary. The training takes around 35 hours and covers everything from the investigation to the court experience.
“We have volunteers from all walks of life, from students to retired people, and employed in various ways,” Reed said.
Cases can involve children from newborns up to 23 years old, Reed said, and volunteer advocates can specify which age group they prefer to work with, as well as which cases to accept. They average 15 hours a month on a case and are required to commit to 12 to 18 months of volunteer work. Reed does her best to work around volunteers’ schedules as far as traveling out of the county and for also “recognizing that life happens.”
CASA is for dedicated volunteers who have the time to commit, said Reed, though she encourages everyone who thinks they might be interested to learn more.
“Come to the training and even if you decide at the end of the training this is not the volunteer experience for you, you will be more educated as a community member around child issues and the needs of our local community,” she said.
The work of all the CASA volunteers makes a difference, she added.
“In my opinion, I think regardless of the end result of the case, I think every CASA makes a positive impact on the case. I really do.”