WARSAW — “We are all one step away, each of us, from hardship. We are one step away from being in the same footsteps,” said Barb Lehman, a volunteer with CASA of Kosciusko County for the past 15 years. “It was hard for me to realize … one job loss, one slap across the face leaving a mark … we’d be the same way.”
Last year the Court Appointed Special Advocate program had a record high number of cases with a 57 percent increase in cases from the previous record year in 2014. This need hasn’t stopped and continues to grow. During the month of April 2018 11 new cases with 26 children were brought into the system. CASA volunteers advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children entangled in the court system.
CASA advocates in two kinds of cases — children in need of services and volatile custody disputes. “We can only assign volunteers to custody cases when volunteers are available,” said Janelle Meyer, program manager. “CHINS cases come first. We have not been able to open our services freely to custody disputes for several years and for the first time in program history we’re experiencing a waiting list for CHINS cases as well.”
CASA’s role is not to take children away from the family but to make sure the child is safe, treated with dignity and respect with a focus on the future. The volunteers get to know the child and family so well they are able to make the recommendations to the court in the child’s best interests. “We’re not there to judge. We know no one wakes up and says ‘I want to ruin my child’s life.’” CASA’s main focus is to advocate for safe, permanent homes as quickly as is possible and in that order.
“It’s really about common knowledge,” said Lehman about what a volunteer does. “You come in and go through the training, until then you don’t know about it (what CASA does). If people were more aware there would be more interest.”
CASA volunteers complete 33 hours of training throughout six weeks. In the training CASA emphasizes a basic understanding of children, families, and addiction while also going over what it takes to be a good CASA advocate. Many professionals come and assist with the training adding firsthand knowledge of the issues.
“There’s no testing,” said Lehman. “It’s a good time, you can ask questions, develop friendships. You leave the training with a lot more compassion … to get the family back together if at all possible.”
The training is the final determining factor to decide if CASA is a good fit. Once a volunteer agrees to become an advocate, an 18-month commitment is requested. “We would rather they figure out after going through the training it’s not what they want to do than in the middle of a case,” said Meyer.
Volunteer hours can be flexible. Volunteers set many of the interview times and with the exception of court most meetings consider the volunteer’s schedule. “They (the volunteers) can continue with their life. It doesn’t stop,” said Mackenzie Cloutier, executive director. “Volunteers can work, and have families, and take vacations. We even have a few snowbirds.”
Volunteers do not have a set number of hours expected each week; the only expectation is the volunteer sees the child each month and keeps up to date with what is going on in the case.
Currently there are 60 CASA volunteers in Kosciusko County. These volunteers come from all walks of life and each has something unique to add to the program. “Our target is 100 volunteers,” said Cloutier. “We know people hear about it and are interested, but it takes five or six times of hearing it before people act.
“If a person is interested in volunteering with CASA the time is now. CASA has children who are waiting for an advocate and we know there are people in our community who can fill that need.”
To learn more call (574) 372-2401 or visit CASA’s website, www.CASAchildren.com.