Court Appointed Special Advocate.
The formal sounding name doesn’t adequately define CASA, volunteer Joe Francis said. It doesn’t tell you what it means to help children who have been taken out of their homes, to give them comfort when they are scared and uncertain. That name doesn’t tell you what it means to have a child thank you for keeping them safe or finding them a loving foster family.
“People don’t understand what CASA is,” he said. “I sure know a lot more than I did three years ago.”
Francis is just one of about 22 CASA volunteers in the 31st Judicial District, representing Allen, Neosho, Woodson and Wilson counties. They work with children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers spend time with the children and investigate the circumstances affecting the child’s welfare. They attend court hearings and provide written reports to the judge.
Last year, the 31st Judicial District logged more than 220 child in need of care cases, where children have been removed from the home because of abuse or neglect, or in some cases because of truancy. Only about 50 of those cases received a CASA volunteer. A lack of volunteers is the main reason why only about a quarter of the children receive an advocate.
“Our goal is to provide an advocate for every child found in need of care,” said Aimee Daniels, CASA director. “So far, we have not been able to reach that goal.”
The CASA program began in 1977 in Seattle and had reached Kansas by 1981. Every Kansas county now has a program.
CASA of the 31st Judicial District is a non-profit agency funded primarily by grants and donations. Helping Daniels is assistant Ashley Varner. All advocates are volunteers.
Volunteers receive at least 30 hours of training before they are assigned a case. There are no other special qualifications to become an advocate, although volunteers must be at least 21 and must pass an extensive background check.
“The only requirement is a sincere desire to help children that really need someone to help them,” Daniels said.
The training covers a variety of topics like child abuse laws, child psychology and developmental milestones, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, loss, grief, separation anxiety and how to work with people who are different than you. Participants will learn how the court system works and will spend time in the courtroom. They’ll also learn about the different agencies that may work on a case, including law enforcement, the Kansas Department of Children and Families, local foster care provider KVC, Hope Unlimited’s Child Advocacy Center and more.
“Everything you need to know is taught in the training. It’s not tricky,” Daniels said.
Volunteers come from all walks of life. Some have experience working with children, like teachers, bus drivers or school psychologists. Some work in agriculture or farming. Many are retired, but others work either full- or part-time.
The amount of time volunteers spend on a case varies. Advocates must be available to attend court hearings, which usually are held every 30 to 60 days as well as attend case planning meetings every six months, where everyone involved in the case and the family meet to work on a plan for reintegrating the child into the home. Advocates also need to visit the child at the foster home or relative’s house for at least one hour each month, but most people visit the child more often, Daniels said. Advocates compile a monthly report for CASA and a court report for hearings.
The goal of CASA is to reintegrate children into the family with their biological parents, Daniels said. When a child is taken out of a home, an attempt is made to place the child with another relative. An unrelated foster home is considered after that.
“Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job,” Daniels said. “Just the fact you helped the child get back home again, that’s always our first goal. If that doesn’t happen, you work even harder to find that child a new place to be where they can be taken care of and loved.”
Francis, who has been an advocate for three years, said it’s rewarding to see children join loving families.
“When you know in your heart what the best placement is going to be, and you ask the kid what they want and they say the same place, you know it’s going to work,” he said. “You know the child can have a normal life.”
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