Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children is a young program in Allen County, but it is taking big steps to bring awareness to children in need.
The CASA program serves the 31st judicial district of Neosho, Allen, Woodson and Anderson counties. There are 15 volunteers, or advocates. Aimee Daniels serves as director.
CASA’s mission is to “prevent child abuse in the foster care system,” Daniels said.
Advocates go through 30 hours of training and four hours of courtroom observation time before they are certified.
Once certified, they are given two cases, never more than three, and they hit the ground running.
The first six months of a case involves a lot of investigation and research. Advocates are given permission to speak with anyone in conjunction with their case.
After six months a case typi–cally slows down, but the advocate never leaves the case unless extreme circumstances arise or the child reaches permanency, such as adoption or aging out of the system.
“You can spend two hours or 100 hours easily on a case a month,” advocate Marie Jordan said.
Part of the job is having the courage to be a “squeaky wheel,” advocate Karen Lee said. That means saying what they think is in the best interest of the child, even if that means going against the grain.
An advocate usually sees a child several times a month, creating a bond of trust so that the child will feel comfortable opening up.
“I heard one volunteer say one time that we (CASA advocates) are the only people in the child’s life that doesn’t get paid to be there,” Daniels said.
The shortest case they have ever had was 13 days and the longest was 4 1/2 years.
In most cases the children stay in touch with their advocates after they have reached permanency.
“I don’t have any formal statistics but I would say 75 percent or more of the children stay in touch,” Daniels said. “Kids that age-out of the system almost always stay in touch because they don’t have anyone.”
Jordan said a CASA advocate can play the “buddy role,” which other agencies, such as social workers, cannot.
One of the major flaws in the system that CASA advocates see is in adoption.
Lee said she has a case now that has been deemed adoptable but has not made it to the adoption website.
“CASA is not happy about the length of the adoption process,” Daniels said.
First and foremost CASA tries keeping children with their families.
“If you don’t know or you aren’t familiar with the system, it can be a scary mess,” Jordan said.
EACH CASA advocate has their own reason for spending so much time helping children in need.
For Jordan, it is a way to help someone who is going through the same thing she went through as a child.
“I grew up severely abused and neglected,” Jordan said. “I was taken in by my grandmother. I can’t do that for every kid but I want to help someone who is going through what I went through.”
Jordan is able to relate with the children she is appointed and even shares her own experiences with them — to give them hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
For Lee it only seemed fitting she continue with this type of work because she was a school psychologist.
“It just fits,” Lee said.
CASA board member, and vice president of academic affairs at Allen Community College, Cynthia Jacobson, said she got involved because at the college the students who struggle are typically those who have aged-out of the system.
“I was interested in the process and what all the advocates do,” Jacobson said.
Advocate Kathy Gilbert said she had someone close to her go through the system, and that is what caused her to join CASA.
“If kids have a support group they can come through and become productive citizens,” Gilbert said.
When Daniels was younger her parents adopted a teenager from the foster care system. She later became a child’s attorney at court and from there decided she wanted to get involved in foster care.
“I see a huge need for CASA in the system,” Daniels said.
Being a CASA advocate takes time and the ability of mastering a balance between caring for the children but not taking the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Many advocates work a full time job in addition to what they do.
“The end result is good for the children,” Daniels said, and that is what makes the work worth it for them.
CASA has deemed Friday as National Wear Blue Day at home or work for child abuse month. June 15 they will be holding a golf tournament at the Allen County Country Club.
To get involved applicants must be 21 or older and have a clean criminal record. Daniels said CASA could use more male volunteers.
For more information contact the CASA office at (620) 365-1448.