At this moment in Chautauqua County, there are over 100 children in foster homes. Who speaks for them once they are removed from abusive or neglectful families? Volunteers, also called advocates, with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are asked to step in and help ease the pain of transition and stress for children removed from damaged or unsafe family situations. Its mission is “to advocate for children in the foster-care system and to fight for their rights and needs until they are in a safe, loving, permanent home.”
The Chautauqua Region Community Foundation is proud to support CASA of Chautauqua County through its Fund for the Region focus on human services.
A national organization, CASA of Chautauqua County was established after the Hon. Judith S. Claire attended a judicial conference in 2002 and learned about the organization. The first class of local volunteers was trained and sworn in February 2004. Today, there are approximately 20 individuals advocating for 48 children, aged two-weeks to 18 years old.
Statistically, children assigned an advocate fare much better, personally and academically, than those without. Kathy Park, Director of Volunteers and Programming for CASA of Chautauqua County, said, “Advocates come from all walks of life; the only prerequisite for becoming one is to have a huge heart for children.”
Potential advocates are screened and thoroughly trained. Once trained, they are assigned to only one case at a time, so they are able to focus all their attention on one child or the children of one family. They become a voice for them, a constant, reassuring presence during the court process. Advocates are required to have at least two face-to-face monthly visits with their children.
Advocates must regularly submit a written report to the Family Court Judge about what they believe to be in the children’s best interests. They often make personal appearances during court proceedings to share their knowledge of a particular situation further. Much respected, their input can greatly assist the judge in deciding a case.
Long-time volunteer, Anne Kohl, understands fully that CASA advocates can make a huge difference to a child. She speaks highly of the organization and says for anyone who has the ability to empathize with children and has a bit of flexible time to share, this is a very worthwhile venture.
According to CASA’s mandates, “All children deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and have a right to a loving home. It is a fundamental obligation of our society to protect them when they are most vulnerable.”
Holly Sullivan, a current CASA advocate said, “The best way to know these young people is to plan an event with them. It can be as simple as taking a long walk or visiting Chautauqua Lake, which many of them have never seen. It’s easy to slide important questions into caring conversations, giving children an opportunity to reveal their true feelings. I try to be a friend and listener.”
One of Holly’s cases concluded this way: the young man she advocated for was going to be officially adopted by his foster mother. On that day, he knelt down in the courtroom in front of her and as he did so, presented her with a ring, asking if she would become his “permanent” mother. “It was very emotional,” said Holly. “The rewards you receive are much greater than your output; it’s amazing!”
There are many ways in which CASA and its community partners work to alleviate this stressful time for children. “Life Books” are a good example. Provided by CASA, these books might include birth certificates, baby photos, family histories (family trees), phone numbers, and pages for personal reflection. They are the children’s to keep as a source of personal identity and familial connection.
Similarly, an unselfish birthday donation was recently made to CASA by a local family. Its generosity unknowingly brought relief and reassurance to two young ladies who were awaiting a Family Court decision. Kathy Parks explained, “We have very few youth who give of their own birthday presents. We use those special gifts for children in foster care who are transitioning, need a ‘pick-me-up,’ or are having a rough time while entangled in the court system.” A coloring book, a puzzle, a game – all offer distractions from the immediate intensity of the situation.
There are currently 47 children awaiting advocates in Chautauqua County; additional volunteers are urgently needed.