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What it means to be a CASA volunteer

CASAJune18dWhen a child enters the foster care system because his or her home is no longer safe, a judge may appoint a committed volunteer to help them. That volunteer is called a Court Appointed Special Advocate®, or CASA.

CASA volunteers are screened and highly trained and then appointed by judges to represent and advocate for a child’s best interests in the child protection system. CASA volunteers are each assigned to help one child or set of siblings at a time, so they can focus on giving that child or sibling group the individualized advocacy and attention they need. CASA volunteers save taxpayers money and children’s futures by helping children find a safe, permanent homes as soon as possible.

CASA continues to provide valuable volunteer advocacy for every abused child in the Hill Country. CASA volunteers serve as the “eyes and ears” for the judge in child welfare cases. This includes researching each child’s situation and making objective recommendations to help them reclaim their childhoods from abuse and neglect. CASA volunteers are frequently the only stable presence in these children’s lives as they navigate the foster care system.These volunteers bring three critical qualities to their work: they focus on one case at a time; they bring a unique perspective to the court case; and their sole objective is representing the best interests of the child.

Ways to get involved:

Hill Country CASA works to heal families

Kerrville Daily Times
January 19, 2017

Alexandria Randolph
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CASA

Volunteers with Hill Country Court Appointed Special Advocates act as guardians ad litem for children in transitional custody, meaning they conduct investigations and provide recommendations in court for the child’s home placement.

In a child custody case on Wednesday, parents, attorneys, social case workers and volunteers from Hill Country CASA met to discuss plans for where four children would call home. CASA volunteers and Child Protective Services case workers agreed on a plan for the children’s father, a San Antonio resident, to regain custody of his children, but only after getting the alcoholism treatment he needs for himself.

“This is a very hopeful atmosphere,” said Stephanie Cash, Hill Country CASA executive director. “This is what we like to see.” This case is just one of many that Hill Country Court Appointed Special Advocates — CASA — will handle. While CPS is not the agency parents want to see knocking on their doors, CASA officials said its primary mission is rehabilitating families like this one. “If there is use of drugs or alcohol, or if there is manufacture or delivery of drugs, then it affects the whole family,” Cash said. “It becomes hard for the parents to take care of the kids, because the focus becomes about trying to get the next high.” Typically, the unaddressed needs of the children originate with unaddressed needs among the parents, Cash said. “When people have mental health issues, often they self-medicate with street drugs,” she said. “CASA has six infants we’re working with now who were born with drug addiction.” Cash said despite the brokenness that advocates see on a regular basis, their primary goal is to not only put children in a safe environment, but also to resolve underlying issues within families.

“Our first goal is always to rehabilitate the family and put them back together,” she said. “The best place for a child to be is with its parent. Our program is not designed to be punitive.” However, Cash said the ultimate priority is the well-being of the child. “No parent wants to see Child Protective Services at their door,” she said. “When we come to that point, we’ve come to intervene, because there’s an immediate safety issue for the child.” While CASA deals with many types of cases, including abusive and neglectful environments, the majority of the cases they deal with are drug related, Cash said.

Hill Country CASA serves four counties — Kerr, Gillespie, Bandera and Kendall — but the majority of its cases originate in Kerr County. “Kerr County has, for many years, been 50 percent of our caseload,” Cash said. “In the last eight months, it’s been 70 percent. Part of that has been due to the types of cases we’re seeing, which are methamphetamine-related cases.” Hill Country CASA represents every child that is in foster care in the four-county area. “We’re very proud of our ability to provide that care,” Cash said. “The state average is about 50 percent.”

Hill Country CASA achieves its numbers only because of the 95 active volunteer advocates, some of whom have devoted up to two years on a particular case or have juggled multiple cases at a time. “They are named as guardian ad litem of the child in court, and they work their cases very intensively,” Cash said. “They’re not attorneys, but they provide a layman’s perspective as they see what is best for the child.”

Cash said advocates delve into all aspects of the situation of the child they are assigned to, including interviewing family members, school administrators, doctors and psychologists, obtaining related files and evaluating the emotional needs and desires of the child. “Since we’re not a party in the case, and we don’t have a dog in the fight, we can do more creative things that work for these families, like alternative dispute resolution,” Cash said. “Our opinion is highly valued and sought after, but it’s just a recommendation.” During court hearings, CASA volunteers are present with CPS case workers, parents and attorneys to discuss the custody situation of the children they serve. Attorney Mark Shurley, who often represents the children in Kerr County custody cases, said the CASA volunteers are invaluable translators between the children and the legal representatives who are trying to help.

“They can work a lot closer with the kids and pay attention to what the issues are,” he said. “The lawyer’s job is to represent our clients — my clients are children. I owe them every duty. It’s so good to have an organization like CASA that is independent and can provide information about my clients. I rely on them to relay the needs the child has.” First-year volunteer Julie Pfeiff said she has always had a heart for children and has worked with pro-life groups and juvenile detention facilities during her career. “I want to see justice done and get these kids to a safe and secure place,” she said. “Vulnerable children have my heart. I want to tell them, ‘You are redeemable,’ and so are these parents.” Pfeiff said the most difficult part she has had to learn as a volunteer is to focus on just the child rather than trying to touch the lives of all those involved. “We all want the best for the child. I just say my part for the kids and trust that the state is helping the parents,” she said.

CASA Case Supervisor Dana Bell also has had a history of helping children. “My parents were foster parents. I wished that a lot of the children in our home had a CASA volunteer,” she said. “When an opportunity arose to become a part of the team, I jumped on it. To be there for a child makes all the difference.”

Reprinted with permission