CASA volunteers serve as ‘eyes and ears of the court’
November 30, 2012
Editor's note — Child Advocates of Nevada County, a private, nonprofit agency with strong community support, offers programs that challenge the abuse and neglect of the children of Nevada County in four ways: advocacy, prevention, education and support.
Inserted into today's edition of The Union is an envelope, which can be used to make a donation to this nonprofit community service program worthy of your support.
For children embroiled in a Child Protective Services case, Child Advocates of Nevada County offers a consistent, outside source through a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to evaluate the child's situation and help work with parents to create a stable home environment.
"Part of the value of the CASA program is that it invites another voice to the conversation," said CASA Program Director Melinda Douros. "The CASA not only speaks for the child, lets the court know what the child wants, but makes recommendations based on observations, independent of all the other parties involved.
"So as much as the CASA works with the social worker, the CASA also functions independently, and is often referred to as 'the eyes and ears of the court.'"
Janice Moule has served Nevada County as a CASA for about 14 years and said she appreciates the role she plays in helping children work through the system.
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"I like the whole idea that they have one CASA the whole time," said Moule, who is able to volunteer her time while her husband primarily runs their local paint and glass business. "They see the CPS worker once a month, and they're going to see their therapist and all different people; but the idea of working one on one with the child, getting to know and support them, has been a real blessing of an opportunity."
Some CASAs have been able to volunteer their time after retiring.
"I feel really fortunate," said CASA volunteer Kate DiMaggio. "I worked all my life, got to retire, and things are good, and I'm still healthy and well; and I want to make sure the community we live in and people are doing well also."
The original concept for CASA came from Seattle-based Judge David Soukup, who wanted an extra aid for foster children during the court evaluation process.
"It started as a judge's brainchild, (a judge) who couldn't sleep because of the decisions he was making on children's lives. He had the idea to bring in a volunteer, an outside person, to look after the child," said Laura Harter, executive director of Child Advocates of Nevada County.
CASA volunteers go through a rigorous training process including various interviews and a 35-hour training course in order to serve.
"The first thing a CASA has to do is learn as much as you can about the situation, what precipitated this child's involvement in the system, understand through our CASA training, which is really good, and what their individual issues or problems could be," said Mark Winters, who has been a CASA volunteer for three years.
A CASA is different from a CPS caseworker in that the CASA is able to spend more time with the child, and the volunteers are not part of a government agency, such as a social worker who may be limited by rules and regulations, agency policies and fiscal limitations.
"CASAs also identify the child's unmet needs — ranging from new shoes to tutoring to counseling to more visits with siblings or grandma — whatever the CASA sees would help the child, especially during this highly stressful time," Douros said. "The CASA is not expected to provide for the child directly but to advocate for services that will help fill those unmet needs."
Judge B. Scott Thomsen, who has worked with hundreds of CASAs in the more than 15 years he has practiced law, said he has never seen a case where a CASA hasn't made a helpful impact.
"I've never seen it where the CASA's role hasn't worked out in a case to be a positive influence," Thomsen said. The decisions he makes that affect children's lives are difficult, he said, but always made due to evidence, part of which a CASA provides.
"You make each decision with a heavy heart," Thomsen said. "But even when made with a heavy heart, you know every time you make a decision it is based on evidence to make the best decision long term for the child, whether it is to ultimately return the child home or terminate parental rights or other appropriate plans."
Winters said he values the positive impact he is able to make in the lives of children going through challenging times.
"I love the fact that we can make a positive impact on these kids that found themselves in the system, and we really do make a positive difference in their lives," Winters said.
Andy Bernadett has been a CASA for six years and said he appreciates the opportunity to support the children.
"I think every kid needs a fan," Bernadett said. "Somebody to tell them they can do it and to kind of provide a different point of view maybe from what they're used to."
Moule said the work can be emotionally difficult, though guidance and advice is offered through the CASA program.
"It can be really challenging and sometimes you do have these emotional lows," Moule said. "But you can call the other staff at CASA to talk to them about things. There are some counselors that can talk to you for a little while and help you through hard parts and sometimes it just takes a few days."
According to the CASAs, one of the recurring challenges is the removal of personal bias and judgment from the observations.
"You just have to get a mindset that you know there's just different people in different situations, and to not take it personally," Moule said.
Bernadett also said an open mind is necessary for the work.
"You gotta be very nonjudgmental," Bernadett said. "There's a million different ways to raise kids and you have to be respectful and make no assumptions about things; so it's been a good lesson."
Moule said she has seen challenging situations, but they can be resolved through better understanding of the problems faced.
"Sometimes when you start, it seems like it's going to be horrendous, but mostly when you start dealing with people and realizing the problems and get to know them, it doesn't end up being so horrendous, and there are more positive-type results than sad and horrible results," Moule said.
DiMaggio said the Child Advocates of Nevada County offers many resources to the community and helps support CASAs so that they feel less isolated in their service.
"You have a lot of support with the CASA office," DiMaggio said. "You're constantly getting positive input. So there's resources in the community for people in trouble. And you keep reminding yourself of that and doing what you can for them by being an advocate, but you're not the only one."
Douros said more volunteers are needed for the CASA program in order for it to serve all children of the court.
"Our intention is to be able to provide a CASA to every child who needs one," Douros said. "Right now we serve between 30 and 40 percent of the children in dependency court with 35-45 CASAs. If we double the number of CASAs, we will meet our goal of advocating and speaking out for every child in court. To do that we need volunteers willing to do this crucial work, as well as the financial support of the larger community to support the CASA program through their donations of time and funds to Child Advocates of Nevada County."
Orientation for the next CASA training class starts in early 2013, 5:30 p.m. March 19, at the Child Advocates of Nevada County office at 208 Providence Mine Road, Suite 119, Nevada City.
Interviews for those interested in training will be scheduled and background checks initiated. Classes will run 6-9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday evenings, April 2 to May 7 with the exception of April 6.
Upon completion of training, new CASAs will be sworn in by Judge Thomsen as officers of the court May 9. Anyone interested in the CASA program should contact Douros via email at Melinda@caofnc.org or by phone at (530) 265-9550, ext 222. Signups and interviews for the April training start immediately.
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4231.