‘Nothing is wasted when you’re pouring positivity into a child’; CASA volunteers find rewards in working with foster children
Community members interested in applying to the CASA program or finding out more about it can attend “Intro to CASA,” an informational meeting with CASA staff and Judge Candace Heidelberger at 5:30 p.m. on February 10 at Child Advocates’ office, 200 Providence Mine Rd., Suite #210 in Nevada City.
Nevada County has pulled something off that few, if any, other California counties have been able to do.
Every child who enters the foster care system in Nevada County is assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA. Advocating for the county’s most vulnerable population, these volunteers serve as an invaluable resource by serving as a support system and voice for children who have experienced abuse and neglect.
Yet in spite of the county’s high CASA participation, there is always a need for more, and the program is now accepting applications for the upcoming 35-hour CASA training, scheduled to take place from mid-March to mid-April.
ONE CASA, ONE CHILD
While the children — who range in age from newborn to age 18 — receive services and care from many professionals, such as social workers and attorneys, case loads are large. By contrast, a CASA’s job is to focus on one child or sibling group. The CASA spends time listening to the child and learning about the child’s experiences and life in the family, foster home and school. Additionally, CASAs work collaboratively with social workers and attorneys to gather and share information that will help the court decide what course of action is in the best interest of the child.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Emerging statistics are encouraging. With a CASA, a child spends an average of eight fewer months in foster care and is half as likely to re-enter the child welfare system. Children with CASAs are also more likely to receive needed services, do better in school, and are more likely to find a secure and safe home.
Yet around the state, the need for CASAs has never been more dire. On any given day in Los Angeles County, there are roughly 30,000 children in foster care, with just 1,000 CASAs able to serve them. Statewide, only 17% of the 55,000-plus foster children are assigned a CASA, with the goal being a less-than-acceptable 30%.
IN NEVADA COUNTY, EVERY CHILD GETS A CASA
“Our numbers are tiny as compared to other communities,” said Melinda Douros, Nevada County’s CASA program manager. “We are so fortunate to be the only county that serves every kid. We also have good retention when it comes to volunteers — about half have been with us more than four years. Some have been with us more than 10, and one for 22 years. But volunteers cycle in and out and there is always a need for more. There are currently about 50 active CASAs.”
CASAs are given authority by the court to examine educational and medical records, and to speak with teachers, doctors, therapists, family members and other service providers to help determine what is best for the child in his/her present situation and in the immediate future. Their work, said Douros, is expected to be neutral, open-minded, objective, and fact-based. CASAs are entrusted with a profound responsibility. Not only do they give information to the court to help determine what is in the child’s best interest, they identify resources that will help the child in the here and now.
“The most rewarding part about being a CASA has been building trust with a youth who has never had an opportunity to trust an adult,” said Suesan Larsen, a Nevada County CASA and former foster parent. “Showing up and doing what you say you’re going to do — that’s huge. Most of these kids don’t know what that feels like. It’s important for potential volunteers to know that we receive excellent support from case managers and the CASA director. You’re not in this by yourself — they’re always a phone call away.”
CASAs often work to find scholarships that enable kids in foster care to attend summer camp and other activities that remind them that foster care doesn’t define who they are. They help find donations of music lessons, sports equipment, prom dresses and tutoring, said Douros. They help arrange for extra-curricular activities like gymnastics and martial arts to empower the children and bring a sense of normalcy to their lives. They play Frisbee, eat ice cream, take walks and hang out with children who have often felt forgotten and powerless. CASAs help let children know they matter and that their voices can — and should — be heard.
“This is such a needed thing for these kids — I’ve seen lots of changes, all for the positive,” said Larsen. “It’s an honor to be a part of this program.”
IT’S NOT JUST THE KIDS WHO CHANGE
CASA volunteers themselves are often changed as much as the children they serve, said Douros, as they develop a new understanding and compassion for victims of trauma, including the child’s family.
“Just watching CASAs find a way into these children’s hearts and make a palpable difference is very rewarding,” add Douros. “CASAs often ask, ‘Am I really making a difference?’ I tell them that nothing is wasted when you’re pouring positivity into a child. Believe me, it’s in there, and it always will be.”
For more information about becoming a CASA, visit http://www.ConsiderCASA.com, call Child Advocates of Nevada County at 265-9550, ext. 222, or email Melinda@caofnc.org. Community members interested in applying to the CASA program or finding out more about it can attend “Intro to CASA,” an informational meeting with CASA staff and Judge Candace Heidelberger at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at Child Advocates’ office, 200 Providence Mine Rd., Suite #210 in Nevada City.
The 35-hour training will take place between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, March 16 through April 22, (no class April 6 or 8) at the same location.
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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