Every year in the United States almost 400,000 children are abused, neglected or abandoned and end up playing a role in a real-life courtroom drama. Many children also become victims of an over-burdened court system that often can’t provide detailed attention to every child.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are volunteers trained to work as proponents for children who are victims of abuse and neglect, in order to find them safe and permanent homes as soon as possible.
CASA of the Continental Divide serves Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties and helped with 110 cases last year. The group has 49 volunteers, and as of yesterday, Oct. 17, four more had completed the two-week training session.
Kathy Reed, executive director of CASA of the Continental Divide, said volunteers have one core value in common — caring about kids.
“A CASA volunteer really gives the man-on-the-street perspective,” she said. “The courts are always good about reading our reports and take our recommendations under consideration.”
The organization recruits and screens volunteer advocates, then provides training to educate the volunteers about child abuse and the court system. They learn about the roles of the Department of Human Services, the judicial system and many of the community resources available to children and families involved in these cases: judges, therapists, mental health professionals and social service workers.
“(At training) the volunteers get a taste of how a real case would work,” Reed said. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to harness the knowledge of community professionals.”
CASA volunteers work for a judge as appointed officers of the court, along with attorneys and social workers. When a CASA volunteer is appointed to a child’s case, that person is responsible for learning as much as possible about the child, Reed said. Volunteers review records, interview parents and talk to teachers, neighbors and, of course, the child. They then submit a report to the court to recommend to the judge what’s best for a child’s future.
In this October training session, Reed said she was fortunate to have two men involved.
“We struggle to get male volunteers,” Reed said. “Of course, we’re grateful for all of our volunteers, but it’s good for young men to have a male in their lives to look up to.”
Volunteers must complete a minimum of 30 pre-service training hours, and are asked to make a 12- to 18-month commitment to the program, since the length of a case can vary.
Carolyn Suarez has been a CASA of the Continental Divide volunteer since August 2010. Volunteers usually work an average of 14 hours per month and only handle one case at a time. New volunteers also have the option to be matched with an experienced volunteer, who mentors them during the first three months of their case.
“It’s daunting to think about what you’ll be doing,” Suarez said. “That’s why the mentoring process is so helpful.”
Once training is complete, volunteers are sworn in as friends of the court. The organization looks at current cases to match volunteers with children.
“It’s good to have the ability to go through the court system and provide support, to find a way for a child to have a more permanent, safe environment,” Suarez said.
She said getting to see the tangible results of her work was rewarding, especially since she knows she is helping out children in need.
“The fact that we’re volunteers, we are not salaried in any way, that makes it comfortable for the parents,” Suarez said. “Our specific niche is to provide the very best for the child.”
Reed said they still have cases waiting for a CASA volunteer and are always looking for more help. The next training session will start in January.
“These people make child advocacy a priority,” Reed said. “From visiting with the child and family, doing work before court and presenting information, they help the child get the services they need.”
For more information visit https://sites.google.com/a/mtncasa.org/casa/about/home or call (970) 513-9390.
“The fact that we’re volunteers ... that makes it comfortable for the parents. Our specific niche is to provide the very best for the child.”