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Helping Hands: CASA helps children find a home

DREW ANDERSEN
summit daily news

DILLON – In an ideal world, there would be no need for CASA of the Continental Divide.

Instead, the program has grown rapidly in recent years, and the need for volunteers has increased.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, and the organization’s primary function is to train volunteers to advocate in court on behalf of children who are victims of abuse and neglect, and to find them safe and permanent homes as soon as possible. The Continental Divide chapter of CASA serves the Fifth Judicial District encompassing Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties.

CASA’s volunteers supplement the work of courts and social services. Rather than focusing on the family as a whole, CASA volunteers advocate specifically on behalf of children and provide an alternate perspective from the court system.

“There are enough attorneys in the courtroom already, and the judge wants the ‘man on the streets’ perspective as to what’s happening with these cases,” CASA of the Continental Divide executive director Kathy Reed said. “That’s what our volunteers provide.”

CASA volunteers meet with the family, friends and teachers of abuse and neglect victims and file a court report based on their findings. The reports contain recommendations such as additional tutoring or increased outdoor activity for the children or urinalysis testing for parents to ensure they maintain sobriety. The reports often contain information the legal system cannot extract from victims and families.

“A lot of times families share things with CASA volunteers that they may not share with other members of the system, because they know the volunteers are there because they care about the child,” Reed said. “They are not being paid to be there. That makes a tremendous difference.”

Volunteers also provide a consistent adult presence for children throughout the legal process. While lawyers, judges and social workers come and go, CASA volunteers typically stay with a child throughout. CASA board member and former volunteer Anne Marie Chapin had a case that lasted two-and-a-half years as the child bounced in and out of residential treatment facilities.

“I was the only one on the case from beginning to end,” she said.

The local chapter of CASA provided support for 124 children in the district during its July to July fiscal year for 2009-2010. So far this fiscal year, the program already has 91 children.

“There are more stressors on families now than ever before,” Reed said. “And that tends to have the greatest impact on the child.”

CASA of the Continental Divide will have 70 volunteers after swearing in its seven newest members Nov. 16 in Breckenridge. Since Reed took over as executive director four years ago, the number of volunteers has tripled and the number of cases has doubled, but recently volunteer numbers have started trailing off.

“We’re not completely sure what is causing it to happen,” Chapin said. “It probably has a lot to do with the economy; people having to take on second jobs and not having as much time to volunteer.”

As a result, CASA is pushing for more volunteers.

A background in law is not necessary to volunteer. CASA volunteers have to provide the aforementioned “man on the street” approach in dealing with cases, so volunteers come from all walks of life.

“Volunteers are everything from housewives to engineers to architects to nurses and even students,” Reed said.

Volunteer training takes place four times per year with variations based on learning preferences. Two of the training programs are independent studies while the other two consist of 30 hours of classes. After completing the training, volunteers are sworn in as Friends of the Court and begin working with youth under the advisement of a mentor – typically a long-time CASA volunteer.

Because volunteering can be intensive, CASA volunteers are not tapped for special events. Individuals and groups who want to help with CASA but do not have the time to devote to volunteering as an advocate can become Friends of CASA. Friends help with fundraising, administrative work or “whatever talent you can contribute,” Reed said.

The local chapter of CASA was founded in 1999 and now has four employees – two full time and two part time. The program recently received an expansion grant from the national organization to add a part-time manager in an effort to CASA offerings in Clear Creek County. CASA is now trying to raise enough money to make the position full-time.

In 2009 the program had an operating budget of $203,000, and in 2010 it increased to $281,180 – largely because of the grant from national CASA. The state provides funding through an annual Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement grant. The rest of CASA’s funding comes by way of private donations and fundraising events.

CASA of the Continental Divide’s largest fundraiser of the year is the upcoming 8th Annual Gingerbread House Competition and Auction hosted in conjunction with and at Beaver Creek Resort. Around 75 participants each year build gingerbread houses to be judged and auctioned to benefit CASA of the Continental Divide. The top gingerbread house in last year’s auction fetched $2,500.

An annual golf tournament held at Beaver Creek Golf Club also benefits CASA of the Continental Divide. A $1,000 entry fee per foursome provides golfers with an experience including 18 holes of golf, a short game clinic, a silent auction and lunch at the exclusive course designed by renowned architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr.

CASA’s final annual fundraiser is the Stay-at-Home Party. Rather than spend money to drive to a gala and bid on expensive items, the Stay-at-Home Party invites guests to send a donation and enjoy a quiet evening at home with the satisfaction of knowing their entire contribution went to a worthy cause.

SDN reporter Drew Andersen can be contacted at (970) 668-4633 or drew.andersen@summitdaily.com.


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