Advocates needed for kids mired in the court system
SUMMIT COUNTY – Breckenridge resident Anne Marie Chapin retired from her career as a school nurse in Denver in 1996 and moved to Summit County four years later, where she promptly signed up to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).As a CASA, Chapin represents children who are in the court system because they are victims of abuse or neglect.Caseworkers and attorneys are also assigned to these types of cases, but unlike their counterparts, CASAs are usually focusing on a single case at once.”We really can give it time,” Chapin said. “We can explore (the case) in more depth and spend more time talking to all the people involved … anybody who has any contact with that child.”The CASA’s objective is to help secure a permanent, healthy living situation for the child within one year, so that child doesn’t bounce around from home to home.But, volunteers such as Chapin can be difficult to come by. CASA of the Continental Divide is currently serving 37 children in 23 cases – only 39 percent of the dependency and neglect cases in the 5th Judicial District, which covers Summit, Eagle, Lake and Clear Creek counties, according to CASA executive director Tiffany Grosjean. “The judges try to pick and choose which cases they need us on most because they know we don’t have enough volunteers to cover all the cases,” Grosjean said.Grosjean has 25 volunteers right now, but not everyone is available to take on a new case due to scheduling conflicts or the need for a break if they’ve recently completed a case.She said she needs her volunteer roster to double to be able to cover 100 percent of the cases in the district. One reason it’s tough to attract volunteers is that the organization asks for a 12- to 18-month commitment to ensure the CASA is involved for the duration of the case, which can be an anomaly.”It’s not unusual that the CASA is the only person the child knows at the end, that was there in the beginning,” Grosjean said.Fifth Judicial District Judge Tom Moorhead has witnessed firsthand the benefit of CASAs during his three years on the bench in Eagle and Clear Creek counties.In one case, the court was considering the option of placing a child with the stepfather in New Mexico.”The CASA volunteer stood up and revealed that she had traveled to that city in New Mexico, got down there Friday night, stayed the weekend, met the family, saw where they lived and came back,” said Moorhead, who hasn’t personally experienced a situation in which a volunteer wasn’t available to take a case. “I was just amazed. I couldn’t have been more pleased.”Though being a CASA has many rewards, it also doesn’t come without its challenges.A CASA has to remain objective at all times and be able to look at all scenarios without considering personal opinion during court appearances and in written reports, Chapin said. One of her biggest personal challenges has been finding the ability to come across as an ally to a child’s family. “It takes a lot of work to explain to parents, help them to understand that we are in there to help their children,” Chapin said.Though the CASA’s commitment can be lengthy, the actual hours devoted to a case fluctuates, Chapin said. CASAs generally log more time in the beginning, while they’re exploring a child’s background. From there, many phone contacts can be made from home, although it’s necessary to travel within the four counties to attend meetings and court hearings.CASA is a national non-profit organization that has been in existence since 1977. The Continental Divide branch began in 1998.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext.229, or at firstname.lastname@example.orgIf you want to volunteerCASA of the Continental Divide will be holding a training session beginning Tuesday, Oct. 4 and running through Oct. 20, which consists of 30 hours of classroom work. An independent study course is available. In addition, new volunteers need to complete five court observations, pass a criminal background check and be interviewed.Volunteers are asked to make a 12- to 18-month commitment and can expect to devote about three hours a week of their time, as well as attend monthly volunteer support meetings.People interested in volunteering should call Tiffany Grosjean at (970) 513-9390.
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