Becoming a CASA volunteer proves challenging, but gratifying

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Brian Arax with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer Tricia Tracy, who said, “I enjoy being in court with Judge Arax and witnessing his kind, empathetic style as he rules in his court proceedings.” Arax, an appointee of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, appointed Tracy as a CASA volunteer.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Brian Arax with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer Tricia Tracy, who said, “I enjoy being in court with Judge Arax and witnessing his kind, empathetic style as he rules in his court proceedings.” Arax, an appointee of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, appointed Tracy as a CASA volunteer. Submitted Photo

Always one to be of service, Tricia Tracy was a longtime volunteer with Valley Children’s Hospital in the Craycroft Unit, and later in Hospice as an in-home support team member, when she learned a bit of information that not only upset her, but was alarming - the high number of foster children in Madera and Fresno counties - more than 1,800.

“There are too many children in the foster system who have no living relatives, no consistent family members who can speak on their behalf, who have lived in numerous homes, and have had horrible things happen to them,” Tracy explained. “These children have no one to advocate for them.”

Tracy, 48, knows the difficulty of raising a child, even under the best of circumstances. Her son, now 20, struggled through his teen years, despite growing up with an amazing support system, a stable two-parent home (with husband Kent), extended family who cared, and neighbors and teachers who took an interest.

“When I learned about CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), I couldn’t imagine a child living in the same zip code as I do, with no one to speak or advocate in their best interest,” Tracy said. “And I knew immediately I needed to become involved ... to try to make a positive difference.”

Tracy has now been a CASA volunteer for about three years, and has worked with a group of four siblings for the past two years.

“It has been very challenging emotionally,” Tracy said. “As a CASA volunteer, you may hear stories that break your heart ... but you must have an unbiased opinion about family members or placements. You may see photos in court reports that are unbelievable ... but you have to stay focused and concentrate on the outcome.”

While the experience can prove challenging and heartbreaking, it is, at the same time, equally uplifting.

“There are doctors who volunteer, senior citizens, couples who do it together as a CASA team ... it’s so rewarding because you get to see the difference you are making,” Tracy added. “The CASA volunteer is a constant in the child’s life, a familiar face, someone who knows the real story, and gives the child a little bit of security.”

As a child advocate, Tracy reads over court records, learns the case history, and the reasons the child was removed from the home before the first visit.

“I then get to know the child the same way a parent or family member would,” Tracy said. “I have no other motive than to make sure the child receives all available resources and the best care.”

Tracy believes most people don’t become involved because they don’t see the benefits, all the good accomplished in cooperation with the appropriate agencies - all working in the best interest of the child’s future.

“It takes a very focused well-trained team of professionals in the court system, social services, foster agencies and hopefully, a CASA advocate to help these children,” Tracy continued. “But sadly, very few foster children have a CASA advocate, so the need for more volunteers is huge. With our social services being overwhelmed with so many cases, sometimes these children seem to fall through the cracks, but a CASA volunteer can help shed light on a situation which could otherwise be overlooked or missed.

“It’s always so rewarding to hear judges expressing gratitude when a CASA volunteer is on the case ... reminding us that we help the courts to see the child’s life from an unbiased perspective ... that we shine a light in the corner of a child’s life that perhaps needs to be exposed or focused on.”

With CASA, Tracy said she has found a place where she can actually see the difference she’s making, convinced that these positive changes will make a lifelong mark in the child’s future. She also believes volunteers must possess inherent warm-hearted traits.

“They need to be compassionate, to be empathetic, to know that they have the capability of changing a life, changing the direction of a child’s future,” Tracy added. “As a volunteer, I hear such uplifting stories ... that once CASA is involved, these children do so much better in school, in relationships and in life.”

In addition to her volunteer hours, Tracy currently owns and operates a small vacation rental, The Yosemite Blissful Retreat, and works tirelessly in her three large gardens.

About volunteering

CASA is comprised of neutral, court-appointed advocates acting as the voice for abused and neglected foster children.

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.

Must be willing to make a commitment to serving with CASA at least 18 months and completing 12 hours of continuing education per year.

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.

“Volunteers help the dependency court and foster care system ensure children have the best opportunity for a healthy and successful future,” Executive Director Nathan Lee said. “I am grateful to report that in this past year we have added 12 new CASA volunteers in Madera County. 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.”

It was about a year ago that Lee said the agency’s goal was to add at least 20 volunteers in Madera County by 2018. They are more than halfway there, with three (including Tracy) in the Mountain Area.

Informational Sessions

CASA will hold informational sessions for those interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer, 9-10 a.m., Saturday Aug. 12, and 6-7 p.m., Wednesday Aug. 16, in the Galloway Room of the Madera County Library (121 N. G Street).

To sign up or for details: Meghan at (559) 244-6485, or casa@casafresno.org.

About CASA

CASA of Fresno County was established in late 1996, expanding to include Madera County in 2005. Beginning with just one full-time staff member and several volunteers, CASA today supports and equips 155 volunteer advocates who serve 400 children in foster care annually.