Saturday, January 13, 2007

CASA volunteers make a positive difference

CASA a valued champion for kids
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 2007, pg. A1.

The judge knew that the young siblings were coming to pre school unkempt and dirty.

But then volunteer advocate Ken Baize told him that the children also routinely arrived hungry, with unchanged diapers and head lice. Baize knew about the conditions because he had visited the children at home and school and talked with teachers.

The judge ordered them removed from the home for neglect. "The judge said, 'This is ridiculous,'" recalled Baize, a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, in Jefferson County.

At a time of growing caseloads and increasingly complex situations of abuse and neglect; often fueled by drugs and alcohol — judges say the CASA volunteers are becoming increasingly important.

The advocates generally handle one case at a time, while busy social workers may have 15 to 20 or more. CASA volunteers regularly meet with the children, their families, foster parents and teachers, and they attend all court hearings to brief the judge on any details the workers believe are important.

They provide critical oversight in cases, picking up details others involved in the case might miss, some judges say.

"CASA makes a tremendous difference," said Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald. "I wish we could have a CASA volunteer for every child in the system."

The need for more volunteers is the main concern among people familiar with the program. "We stick with one case and make sure it's done right, but there's other cases out there that sure could use some people," said Baize, 48, a small- business owner.

Jefferson County's CASA has about 170 volunteers, while Family Court judges last year handled 3,500 cases of abuse or neglect. Dawn Lee, executive director, said CASA workers are involved in about 125 cases at any given time and represent about 400 children, many of them siblings.

Though judges acknowledge they probably will never have enough volunteers to appoint a CASA worker for every case in family court, they wish there were many more.

"A lot of times, CASA is the only primary, consistent person in the child's life," said Stephen M. George, chief judge of Jefferson Family Court.

CASA, modeled on a national program, was created in Jefferson County in 1985 and has spread to 32 other Kentucky counties. Jefferson County also is expanding its services to the new family court district in Oldham, Henry and Trimble counties.

'It helps kids a lot'
Camerin Henderson, 15, said Jefferson County CASA worker Stephanie Wenther helped her through a difficult time after she was placed in foster care at age 10.

"I really liked her, she was cool ," said Camerin, who now lives with her adoptive parents in Bullitt County. "She just acted like a normal person and talked to me about everything."

Wenther, 36, a LaGrange mother of three, said she got involved as a CASA volunteer after witnessing child abuse and neglect cases in her former work as a police officer in Kansas City.

"These kids are in circumstances that are way out of their control," she said. "I just care for them and want to help them the best way that I can."

The volunteers also try to provide some fun for children. Baize said he has taken children fishing, out to dinner and to other activities. On such outings, he's often able to pick up useful information about their lives simply by listening.

"It's amazing what two kids talking in a car will say," he said.

The operation CASA gets no state money and relies on grants and fundraising to pay staff and administrative costs. Louisville Metro government donates office space.

Volunteers must be 21, undergo a criminal background check and have no active cases in family court , such as a child abuse or neglect allegation, pending divorce or custody dispute. Though social workers, foster parents and court personnel may change during a case, the CASA worker generally remains the same, sticking with a case for months and sometimes years until it is resolved.

CASA workers provide regular written reports to the judge, detailing their observations about the children.

"Every time I've been in court, the judge always reads the CASA report and takes it into consideration," said Diane Smith, 50, a homemaker and CASA volunteer in Jefferson County. "Every now and then the judge will say, 'What does the CASA worker think about this?'"

George said generally he requests a CASA worker if a case seems complicated and lengthy, and if several children are involved.

A success story
Volunteers also can help ensure children have transportation to appointments with doctors or counselors — and for visits with parents or other siblings if they have been removed from home.

Often CASA workers shepherd the children through the traumatic experience of being permanently removed from their parents' care and placed for adoption. But sometimes, parents are able to overcome problems such as drug addiction, abuse, neglect or mental health issues to regain custody.

That's the best outcome of all, CASA workers say.

Smith said she recently represented two sisters who had been taken from a home because of problems. But the parents worked to meet all requirements set by the judge and social service officials, and eventually they regained custody .

"It was a wonderful Christmas gift to me to see this family that had been on the verge of being broken up home together for Christmas," Smith said. "Everything just came together."


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