Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Executive Director Nathan Lee spoke at last week’s Town Hall meeting in Bass Lake, explaining how the program works and its need for volunteers.
This outreach comes on the heels of Madera County Dependency Court Judge Tom Bender asking the organization to bring on more volunteers as court advocates for children in foster care. A couple of grants the organization recently received has allowed for more outreach in Madera County, which currently only has 10 volunteers.
CASA is comprised of neutral, court-appointed advocates acting as the voice for abused and neglected foster children.
“While serving as an advocate can prove to be challenging and sometimes difficult, it is also very rewarding,” Lee said. It also requires a long-term commitment of 10-15 hours per month for 18 months.
While volunteering with CASA, individuals have just one case assignment at a time. Someone is also on hand for advice - an advocate supervisor, who is available for resources and any requested support.
In addition to the long-term commitment, which provides consistency for the children, other criteria for becoming an advocate includes:
☆ The desire to help children.
☆ Must be at least 21 years of age.
☆ Must be able to relate to people of different cultural backgrounds.
☆ Must be able to pass a criminal background check.
While these are key condi tions to becoming a CASA volunteer, for Lee the most important quality necessary is the ability to remain objective.
“We don’t present ourselves with big credentials and are careful not to become emotional, to keep our boundaries so that we can give these children the best representation possible,” Lee explained. “Because of this objectivity, people are able to hear and respect what we have to say.”
To become an advocate, you must first attend an informational session, where the training is discussed, followed by a screening process, which includes background checks, references and an interview.
Once accepted, the 40-hour specialized training starts, and after being sworn in as an officer of the juvenile court, the CASA volunteer begins the duties, the first of which is to establish a supportive and consistent relationship with the child. Court hearings are typically scheduled every six months, so the advocate can plan on writing a court report and attending court at least twice a year.
“Our goal in the next two years is to add at least 20 more volunteers in the county, which will serve as a foundation for a permanently growing CASA involvement in Madera County,” Lee added. “Advocates can actually transform a child’s life. Children in foster care are moved around so much that they can easily be overlooked. All it takes is one person to focus, to pay attention.”
Lee then gave an example of one advocate assigned to a school-age boy who didn’t know that his birthday was the same day every year.
“He had been moved around so many times,” Lee explained, “that people didn’t realize that he didn’t understand his birthday, so the advocate wondered what else he didn’t understand or know. What motivates her is that she will be the person who helps him overcome these gaps in his life. Life’s not easy to begin with ... and advocates like this can help even out the playing field for these kids.”
In 2005, CASA of Fresno County expanded to include Madera County, and currently employs a full-time staff, and supports and equips 130 volunteer advocates who serve 250 children in foster care annually. There are more than 2,000 children in foster care in Fresno and Madera counties.
Beginning next January, CASA employee Angi Santymire will be housed in Madera County for outreach and to supervise the county’s volunteer advocates.
An informational session for those interested in learning more will be held 6 p.m., Aug. 31, in the Madera County Library’s Galloway Room (121 N. ‘G’ Street).
A CASA fundraiser - the 18th annual Crab Feed - will be held 6 p.m., Sept. 16, at the Garza residence in Clovis. Tickets are $90. To purchase tickets, (559) 244-6485, or www.casaevents.org.
Other Town Hall topics included:
☆ The annual Great Sierra River Clean-up will take place Sept. 17. This is a premier volunteer event focused on removing trash and restoring the health of waterways throughout the Sierra Nevada Region.
☆ Cal Fire and Sierra National Forest representatives gave an update on continuing plans to deal with the devastating loss of pine trees.