Children need a safe, nurturing environment to achieve well-being and self-confidence, educators agree. When families can’t provide that, children rely on local volunteers to be their voice in the process of finding a safe, permanent home.
Parents who struggle with drug abuse, domestic violence or mental illness may find themselves in court, where a judge decides if their home environment is safe. If not, some children are put in foster care, while the parents work on becoming healthy.
Children are then assigned a volunteer advocate to look out for them. Most of the children served locally are 5 years old or younger. About 90 children need an advocate, but there are only 40 volunteers.
Court Appointed Special Advocates become the voice of the child and advocate for the child’s best interest throughout a child welfare court case.
“Our middle-class, white-picket-fence instinct is, ‘Well, let’s just take that child and put her into a happy home, and everyone feels good,’” says Julia Mabry, executive director of Clatsop CASA Program.
“But that’s not how it works,” Mabry says. “That is not in the child’s best interest. The child’s best interest is to help the parents be safe and sober so they can continue their attachment and continue to be raised by their parent, if that is at all possible.”
“This volunteer work is really rewarding” Mabry says. “It can really make a difference in the life of a child. But it really does take a special person, who is willing to learn about what has happened to that child that led them to being in foster care.”
Before CASAs are called in, Child Protective Services, through the Department of Human Services, determines if the child is safe at home. If not, they help parents make a plan that will keep the child at home.
When parents cannot comply with the plan, they end up in court and CASA gets involved. “Parents might be passed out on the couch or seeking drugs and are not focused on raising kids,” Mabry says.
“Exposure to domestic violence is really damaging to children. It is very traumatizing and has long-lasting effects on their ability to learn and to develop properly. We can’t leave a child in a home where they are constantly exposed to domestic violence.”
Parents are given time to become safe and sober. It usually takes about a year, but that can vary depending on how well the parents are doing.
“Parents have to get their life together,” Mabry says. “They have to not use drugs, take care of their mental health or whatever they need to do. Some parents do really well, and get their kids back, and some don’t.
“It’s really important for us to match the children with volunteers who have shared interests, so they can bond easier.”
While the child is in foster care, the CASA visits the child at least once a month and learns what needs, hopes and wishes he has. CASA’s role is to make sure whatever happens is in the child’s best interest, Mabry says. For example, she might advocate for more visits with an uncle or someone close to them.
“They might want horseback riding lessons or a bike,” Mabry says. “Sometimes it’s just little things that make a big difference. What CASAs really advocate for and work on is the child’s best permanent plan.”
Because childhood trauma can affect health for life, Columbia Pacific Coordinate Care Organization (CCO) awarded a grant of $15,000 per year for two years for CASA Volunteer Training and Supervision in Clatsop County. The grant will help CASA provide training twice a year to expand the volunteer base and offer supervision to CASAs after they are assigned cases.
During training, CASAs learn about the effects of trauma on kids. They learn about the importance of the child’s attachment to parents as part of their emotional development.
They also learn about community resources, and “the dire need for our community to do better by our children,” Mabry says.
People interested in becoming a CASA volunteer can attend a six-week training program starting Oct. 18 at Clatsop Community College. See http://www.clatsopcasa.org/
Sessions are three hours every Wednesday for six evenings. CASAs learn about child welfare laws, why kids are removed from home, what the treatments and options are for the parents and a little bit about child development.
After training, child welfare and criminal background checks are performed on volunteers. If passed, the CASA is then they are sworn in and they become part of the court proceedings.
The time commitment after training is about four to six hours a month, Mabry says. The CASA meets with the child and follows the progress of the parents, through collaboration with the DHS caseworker.
The program asks for a two-year commitment, because most cases last that long, Mabry says. But others resolve earlier.
Who should apply
“CASAs should be open-minded and curious,” Mabry says. “They have to be willing to learn what is happening in this child’s life and want what’s best for kids.”
Jody Heverly has been a Clatsop CASA for three years and finds the work gratifying. After teaching for 27 years, she retired and was urged to become a CASA by her daughter who was in law school.
Heverly sees her role as being there for the kids — at every turn, at every place. In fact, she was scheduling to visit a child who was having difficulty at school.
“It’s important to have a consistent person through the many changes the kids are experiencing,” Heverly said. “I have a sense that I have helped some children who really need help; someone who can be there for them, no matter what.”
Mabry says, “My greatest desire is to have a society where we don’t need CASAs. If we did not have kids who suffered abuse and neglect, we wouldn’t be needed.”
The Way to Wellville and its sponsor, Columbia Pacific CCO, support CASA programs.
To volunteer, contact Ann at Clatsop CASA, 503-338-6063 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.