CASA needs volunteers, which means children need volunteers.
Court-Appointed Special Advocates work on behalf of children in which the state takes at least temporary custody or guardianship due to abuse or neglect. The program is administered by the Department of Human Services.
Erin Taggart took over as CASA director working with Building Healthy Families in August and said the need is dire. At the moment, CASA is handling eight cases with four volunteers within the court district.
Donna Smith, a retired primary and special education teacher from the Wallowa School District is the latest and fourth volunteer to take on CASA duties. Judge Thomas Powers swore her in Nov. 21 after she concluded 30 hours of training.
One of Smith’s fellow teachers sparked her interest in becoming a volunteer. While teaching, Smith had noted the impact on children without a family connection.
Some of Smith’s training came from a manual and some of it private tutoring with Taggart. The director said that training would normally take place in a classroom environment but numbers here thus far are too small.
Taggart emphasized that the training material is not difficult to learn. An applicant mainly needs a willingness to serve children. Other CASA volunteers and other resources and support networks are also available to answer questions.
“It’s a lot of reading and a lot of discussion to get those 30 hours in,” Taggart said. After the initial 30 hours of instruction an additional 12 hours per year of continuing education is required.
Ultimately, Taggart would like CASA to field eight to 10 volunteers in the area, which would allow for more volunteer mentoring as well as case coverage and even taking a break on occasion. Smith is taking on her first case this week.
“Erin will be working with me on the first case, so she’ll be helping me learn the ropes,” Smith said.
With Taggart as the director, CASA has monthly meetings and work closely with DHS, Youth Services and Judge Powers, who hears cases for Wallowa and Union counties.
Among its other duties, the organization also provides what’s called “courtesy CASAs” to kids placed in the county by courts outside the local jurisdiction.
“It gives us the opportunity to put eyes on them in their current foster home, in their current school and their current living situation, even if a court from a different county is handling the case,” Taggart said.
The program not only depends on its four volunteers for child advocacy, it needs community involvement as well. The organization is trying to work with the community to improve advocating for kids in the courtroom and providing resources in their homes or schools.
Right now, Taggart is working with DHS to help recruit more foster parents or respite care and to keep children in good homes.
Once the CASA program is at speed, Taggart would like to concentrate the group’s energies on prevention.
“How can we prevent some of this; how can we work with families in the community to prevent kids from coming into care,” she asked.
Part of the duties of a CASA volunteer include making home visits and interviewing people involved in the child’s life such as parents, foster parents teachers and doctors. Making inroads into schools and learning how to support school in their mission to help the child is another facet.
When it comes to the courtroom, CASA volunteers are generally the last ones of all the parties involved to have seen the child.
“Not always, but most often, it’s the CASAs that have built a relationship with or seen the child and have the unique perspective of presenting to the court, the case through the child’s eyes,” Taggart said. “We’re not dealing with a youth or case number, we’re dealing with Johnny, who’s three, and has this brokenness.”
Taggart said that CASA works with children of all ages but lately, older male juveniles make up the greatest part of the work load. That can change in a moment, according to Taggart. The CASA program would like to find males who would consider applying, but they’re thankful for whoever steps up.
Smith and Taggart both offered several reasons to volunteer.
“It gives you a chance to give back to the community and meet other friends working toward a similar goal,” Smith said.
“I think it’s a unique way that we can give to them (the children),” Taggart said.”I think there’s a lot of ways the community can give to the kids in foster care: Being a mentor and doing something fun with them. Not that I guarantee this is always going to be fun, but you’re making a true difference in this child’s life.”
From her own experience as a foster parent, Taggart said she’s seen the difference CASAs make in the lives of children. She also said that adults who spent a portion of their childhood in foster care have told her CASA volunteers brought balance and consistency to their lives and made a difference.
Judge Powers places a high value on CASA volunteers.
He emphasized that the volunteers serve as one of the most important resources the court has in dependency cases.
“They are a one-on-one personal contact for the child, and they’re often the best source of information the court has about how the child is doing, how their foster placement is doing and children’s plans and expectations for the future. It’s incredibly important.”
Taggart is also working with DHS to create a community partnership gathering sometime in January. The gathering will feature a “one-stop-shopping” event for individuals, community organizations or businesses that showcases ways they can support youth and foster care.
For the moment, the CASA program is still discovering the needs of the children it serves.
“I think there’s a lot more needs than we see, and as we continue to go we find more and more of them to meet,” she said. “We have kids waiting.”