RBC | In a perfect world, every parent would come into parenthood fully equipped with all the tools and training needed to raise their children. But this isn’t a perfect world, and sometimes parents struggle and their kids suffer as a result. When that suffering — in the form of abuse or neglect — reaches the attention of the legal system, kids need someone to advocate for them in a system that is intimidating even for adults.
That’s where CASA volunteers step up. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate.
After 15 hours of intensive training, volunteers are assigned to work with individual children to provide the constant support of an adult who doesn’t have any agenda other than advocating for the child’s needs.
“We’re their voice in court,” said Brittany Shonk of Meeker, who is the CASA Advocate Supervisor for the three-year-old CASA of the 9th Judicial District program for Rio Blanco County. Shonk was inspired to apply as a volunteer after seeing an ad for the program in the HT three years ago.
Advocates are assigned to work with children in cases where the legal system thinks it would be beneficial, and according to statistics provided by the national CASA website, their work is effective. “Judges report the impact of CASA/GAL volunteers is most pronounced in “promoting long-term wellbeing” (92.2%), followed by “appropriate services to child and family” (83%) and “psychological wellbeing” (79.9%).” (https://nationalcasagal.org/our-impact/research-and-effectiveness/)
RBC has about eight volunteers now, and every one of them has a case.
“Each advocate is assigned one case, start to finish,” Shonk said. They’re expected to meet face-to-face with the child or children at least twice a month, though most do more. They visit the child’s home or school, go to the park, attend court dates and supervised family meetings with the Department of Human Services (DHS). With no in-county foster homes, advocates travel to communities to advocate for RBC kids in foster care.
“We listen to what they say,” Shonk said. Advocates make recommendations to the court on behalf of the kids. If a child in foster care says they’d like to see their siblings more often, the advocate can share that with the judge.
For some children, their CASA connection may be a rare consistent adult relationship during a difficult period in their lives. Some children may see multiple caseworkers through DHS because of employee turnover, while their advocate stays the same.
“We save space with the kids. They will typically open up with us,” Shonk said.
The pandemic demanded flexibility and adaptation from advocates, with face-to-face meetings replaced by virtual interaction on screens. The number of calls to the hotline reporting possible cases of neglect or abuse dropped dramatically as schools closed and people stayed behind closed doors.
“It was concerning, nobody having eyes on the kids,” Shonk said. “That was scary for awhile.”
One plus side of the shift to virtual meetings Shonk hopes will continue as things open up is that more parents are attending the court hearings for their cases than ever before.
“I’m really proud of the advocates here in RBC. They have gone above and beyond. It hasn’t been easy through the pandemic,” Shonk said.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, noted by the bright blue pinwheels placed around town along with signs and flyers. Those interested in volunteering with the CASA program are encouraged to call 970-987-4332.
By NIKI TURNER – firstname.lastname@example.org