When Child Protective Services steps in and removes a child from his or her home, that child begins a complicated, confusing and often frightening process, one in which the voice of the child can easily get lost. It is the job of Court Appointed Special Advocates to keep that from happening.
Nationally, CASA is a network of 946 programs that are recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to be court-appointed special advocates to represent the best interests of children in the courtroom and other settings, according to the CASA website.
Each year, more than 600,000 children are put into foster care. Last year, more than 77,000 CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers helped 234,00 of those children find safe permanent homes.
In the three months of the last quarter, CPS handled cases involving 249 children in Johnson County. Of those, 66 did not have a special advocate because there were not enough volunteers to go around, said Lori Kretz, development manager for CASA of Johnson County.
“There just aren’t enough volunteers right now to meet the needs of our county,” Kretz said. “We need committed people from all walks of life who will join us in our fight to make sure these abused and neglected children successfully navigate the child welfare system.”
Becoming a CASA volunteer requires 14 hours of in-class training and 16 hours of online training, Kretz said. CASA of Johnson County has scheduled in-class training for Aug. 6, Aug. 8, Aug. 13 and Aug. 15. But, she said, those interested in volunteering should register as soon as possible to get the process underway.
“We wouldn’t turn down a volunteer just because they were registering at the last minute, but it does help if people register as soon as possible so we can get the background check and other requirements taken care of,” Kretz said.
Those requirements include, in addition to a background check, submission of references and an interview. Once a volunteer passes those steps and completes the class and online training, “you are sworn in and you are officially a CASA volunteer,” she said.
CASA volunteers, Kretz said, can be vital to the wellbeing of children taken into the state’s child welfare system.
“When a child is pulled from their home by [CPS], it is the beginning a long and complicated process. It is very confusing for these children, and it can be very scary,” Kretz said. “All too often, the children’s wants and needs — the children’s voices — are lost in the process.
“As a CASA volunteer, your only concern, your only job is whatever is in the best interests of the children. You are there to give that child hope, to be that child’s voice and to make sure his or her dignity is preserved and their needs are met.”
CASA volunteers are an official part of the judicial proceedings regarding children removed from their homes by state authorities, and the volunteers work alongside attorneys and social workers to help ensure the best outcome for the child.
Volunteers meet with the child, with parents and other family members, neighbors, school officials, doctors and other involved in the child’s life who might have pertinent information. The volunteer reviews all the court facts about the case and all court documents, then submits formal reports to the judge at every hearing or review.
CASA volunteers are required to attend 12 hours of in-service training each year. Volunteers are required to make a 12-month commitment to attend all court hearings about the child they are assigned to. There are usually about two hearings a year.
Volunteers are also expected to be available for case assignment and to accept cases immediately after they complete their training, and they should expect to spend 12 to 20 hours a month on each case.
Kretz said that while the requirements may seem daunting, potential volunteers should look past that to the rewards the job can offer.
“This is a very important job. It is so very necessary, and it can be so very rewarding,” Kretz said. “And with the number of cases in Johnson County, the need for CASA volunteers is also on the rise. We need volunteers desperately, and the sooner you register, the better.”
To register to become a CASA volunteer or for more information, call Kretz at 817-558-6995, ext. 12, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.