We have all been there. As children we at times felt as though our voice was not being heard. But to be a child who is abused or in a situation where one’s parents are not putting the welfare of the child first, the most vulnerable in our society feel even more helpless.
Thanks to countless volunteers, those children are getting a voice. Court Appointed Special Advocates serve as a voice for a child during a child protection case. Their input is valuable and can act as eyes and ears for the judge.
According to Cherie Peak, supervisor for the Boundary and Bonner County CASA office, the role of a CASA volunteer entails investigation and submission of reports to the court providing the judges with information they need when making decisions that impact a child in their present situation—and perhaps for their lifetime.
“The CASA monitors the progress of the court case and wellbeing of their CASA kiddos,” said Peak of the role of a CASA. “The quality of care the children are receiving in their foster home and how they are doing in school are examples of areas they monitor. After gathering this information, the CASA can determine what the child’s needs are and how best to get those needs met.”
The CASA program began in the 1970s by a judge in Washington who felt the vital decisions he was making regarding a child’s future were being done so without sufficient information. With a realization that he and other judges should make those life altering decision with confidence and realizing that the child protection system was overburdened and did not have sufficient resources, he formulated the idea of volunteers as advocates.
“Foster children’s needs were not being sufficiently monitored nor met,” explained Peak. “Having someone outside the system also serves to bring a balanced and objective perspective into the case. CASA provides checks and balances and augments services for our understaffed and underfunded child welfare system.”
It was not until 1996 when a CASA office came to Bonner and Boundary counties. Now, 20 years later, countless volunteers have given their time to not only give children a voice, but hope for the future as well. But the benefits of the relationship are a two-way street.
“I recently ran into someone who had been one of the first CASAs here in 1996,” said Peak. “He shared that for him doing CASA work remains one of the most challenging and fulfilling things he’s done in his life.”
A CASA volunteer commits to spending time with each of the children for whom they are an advocate. Peak shares that a visit is required a minimum of one time per month, but most volunteers visit much more frequently.
“Throughout a child protection case, a child’s home, school, social workers, foster parents and other professionals can change many times. This adds to the stress and sense of loss they experience,” said Peak. “An important role for a CASA is to become a consistent, stable, safe adult the child can trust to stand with them through this traumatic time in their life. Research shows this will greatly impact outcomes for the child.”
For Bonner and Boundary counties there are currently a total of 17 CASA volunteers, however four of those volunteers are not currently taking any new cases. Unfortunately, the need for advocates is great.
“We need more CASAs to ensure every child who needs one will have one,” said Peak, who adds that there are currently eight individuals going through the initial six-week training program, and there will be another one offered in the spring.
In 2016 Bonner County CASA had about 70 cases involving about 150 children. In Boundary County those numbers were about 10 cases involving about 16 children.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, it involves extensive initial and ongoing training and spending an average of 12 hours a month for at least one year. But the rewards are many.
“Last year we had a speaker at a fundraiser who was a former foster child who grew up to obtain an education in political science and work in government at the state level,” shared Peak. “She talked about how much her CASA contributed to her growing up to be a healthy successful person. Many CASAs have had former CASA kids get in touch with them to let them know how they are doing in life. Some CASAs remain a presence in their CASA kiddos lives long after they are out of foster care.”
CASA programs are mandated by the State, however they only receive one out of every four dollars they need to operate from a grant through the Supreme court. “The other three dollars comes from fundraising, grants and donations,” said Peak.
Today there are approximately 950 CASA programs throughout the world. And as one judge from Alaska stated, “A CASA brings the common sense and conscience of their communities into the courtroom.”
If you are interested in learning more about becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate, email Donna at the Coeur d’Alene CASA office, firstname.lastname@example.org. Who knows—you might just help save a child from a life of abuse.