CASA is coming to Grand County
February 8, 2008
When a child is suspected of having been neglected or abused, the child may be plucked from home and shuffled from foster care to foster care placement to placement until the case is finally closed.On average, a social services agency handles many cases at once, as does the attorney appointed to look after the childs rights, and in the mix of court hearings and casework, a childs extra needs may get overlooked as they are introduced to a foreign world of lawyering and public care. For this reason, a program was created by a Seattle judge in 1977 who recognized that children in such situations were lacking the attention they needed. From this observation, a program called Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, was introduced. CASA organizes volunteer individuals who are appointed to advocate for childrens best interests.In recognition of the Colorado-based CASA agencies mission to lead the state in mobilizing competent citizen volunteers to stand up for every abused and neglected child in Colorado, the program is being implemented in Grand County, the first of its kind in the area.Endorsed by local judges, the CASA program will address the 15 or so cases that are introduced to the court system each year.Im very excited about the CASA program coming to Grand County, said Judge Mary Hoak of the 14th Judicial District Court. I cant wait for the program to begin. It will really help the children.A panel of organizers, including Hoak, has been meeting for a year detailing how the program will be administrated locally. Glen Chambers of the Grand County Department of Social Services, Kim Linin of Fraser and two directors from the Colorado CASA program Rural Program Director Diane Waters and Executive Director Lori Burkey are among those dedicated to seeing the program through.Their final full meeting before the Northwest Rocky Mountain CASA launches took place Thursday in the jury room at the Grand County Courthouse.The volunteer-based organization will provide a communication connection from the child to the parents of a child and the childs foster parents to social workers, guardian ad litem attorneys and courts. CASA can add another resource that gives children a voice in court, Waters said.Volunteers, who are highly trained and supervised, are appointed by the court and work closely with social workers and attorneys to look out for the best interests of the child. But as a neutral party in the system, the volunteers become a constant and stable force in that childs life, Burkey said.From frequent visits with the child, ideally the volunteer builds a relationship of trust. The child may then open up to the volunteer and make requests that may better his or her situation. For example, perhaps the child remembers a relative with whom he or she has been out of contact who may be able to take in the child. A child might share this information with the CASA volunteer, who can then pass that information on to social services. Or, it could be as simple as seeing to it that the childs life returns to as much normalcy as possible; for example, making sure activities with which he or she was involved are not being ignored due to the childs altered living conditions.The volunteer also stays in contact with the childs parents throughout the case, as well as other people who may have information about the childs best interests.Statistics show that about 60 percent of teenage foster children who age out of the system when they turn 18 eventually end up either in prison, homeless or dead due to the lack of resources and preparation for facing adulthood. If connected with a CASA volunteer, such teens have help in that transitional process, Burkey said.In a program that has been active in Colorado for 22 years, there now are more than 900 CASA volunteers in the state, helping 2,700 children. Volunteers see the child or children once per week, sometimes have meetings at schools, and are matched to a child according to their willingness. For example, program organizers take age preferences into account. We really do want a good match, Waters said.Volunteers also undergo 30 to 40 hours of training before they are entered into the program, at which time, they are treated like an officer of the court.Although there is a time commitment volunteers must consider, they must also consider what they are poised to gain by helping out children who end up in such distressing circumstances. According to Linin, a former CASA volunteer in Kansas before she moved to Grand County and advocated that a program be implemented locally, volunteers gain lasting rewards in knowing theyve hastened the court process through improved communications and have helped to ultimately get a child back into a stable living situation.The local CASA program is slated to officially launch in May. Until then, a local Community Development Committee is forming to run the nonprofit program, and organizers are planning to hire a part-time staff member to manage volunteers. The program will start out with up to 10 volunteers, Burkey said.If interested in the program, contact Rural Program Manager Diane Waters for more information at 303-623-5380 or look up http://www.coloradocasa.org. Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.