The Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce had a guest speaker at its meeting last week. Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties CASA Executive Director Jenny Castle, of the 11th Judicial Circuit in West Virginia, met with the COC to share information about a very important work.
For those who are not familiar with the program, CASA – or Court-Appointed Special Advocates [for Children] – began in 1977 in Seattle, Washington, after a concerned judge, believing that he did not have sufficient information, reached out to members of the community.
The non-profit organization has since taken flight and enlists community members – who are willing to donate three to fives hours a month – to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children in the foster care system nationwide.
“Our mission is to train and administer volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children through collaboration with social service agencies, legal counsel and other resources to obtain safe and permanent homes,” a CASA handout reads.
Eleven CASA programs can be found serving 32 of the 55 counties in West Virginia, and for Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, Castle is working with a volunteer coordinator, a volunteer recruiter, seven active volunteers and 11 volunteers-in-training.
On average, an abuse and/or neglect case lasts 15 months, and CASA volunteers are with their assigned children from the time they are removed until permanency – be it reunited with their family or adoption – is achieved.
However, a small percentage of children in the foster care system become wards of the state.
“I have one young man that I’ve been with for seven years,” Castle said. “He just turned seventeen, has been in and out of different treatment programs, and he’s smarter than all of us put together. He can do quite some amazing things. When he was eleven, he hacked into a computer system and changed the payroll, and folks received between nine and thirteen cents on their paychecks. I can’t do that, and I’m a lot older than eleven.”
The anecdote garnered a roomful of laughs, but the point Castle had to make was a somber one.
“I’m all he has,” she explained. “I’m the only person he calls three to five times a week – I’m it. We are that one consistent person in a child’s life.”
CASA volunteers have five primary roles to play – the first of which is to be the child’s voice in court.
“We will always advocate for what the child wants,” Castle explained. “As their advocates, we might not always agree with what they want, but the important thing is that the judge knows exactly what the child desires.”
Volunteers make recommendations in the child’s best interests, as well, and in CASA terms, “best interest” means a safe, permanent home.
“If Johnny wants to go home, we put that in the court report,” she said. “However, if Mom’s still living with the guy who abused him, that’s not okay and our recommendation is in Johnny’s best interest.”
The third role is to monitor all court-ordered services.
“If the judge says you’ll go to Seneca Mental Health or the Family Refuge Center, we monitor those services and put that in our court report – which is the fourth thing we do,” Castle went on to explain. “We do an independent investigation outside of what the department does. I was in court last Friday, and the [judge] said that the CASA report was the most valuable piece of information he gets.”
By conducting their own investigations, CASA volunteers act on the fifth and final role: speaking with everyone involved in the case – be it coaches, family members, teachers at school, etc. Their findings are then complied into a report, and judges are able to see the whole child – not just the abuse and neglect aspect of the case.
“When the judge reads our report, he can see how Johnny’s doing in school, what he’s doing in the community, what he wants, and our recommendations,” Castle said.
In order to become a volunteer, the interested party must be, at least, 21 years of age, have a high school diploma and undergo background and reference checks. Thirty hours of training must be completed, as well as 12 additional hours of training for every year served as a volunteer.
Once their training has been completed, volunteers meet with the child once a month – if not more – and attend MDT [Multidisciplinary Team] meetings, among other duties. At the end of her presentation, Castle opened the floor to questions.
“I was under the impression that there was a way for businesses to donate employee time, or some kind of agreement that could pertain to business,” Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce board member Sherry McCarty offered.
“That was part of one of our most recent campaigns,” Castle explained. “The basis was that an employee would donate one hour’s pay – it could be a one-time thing or done weekly – and then have the employer match it with a donation. Unfortunately, we were unable to give it the necessary promotion to get it off the ground in December, but we’re hoping to try it again.”
In addition to money and time, donations in the form of teddy bears are more than welcome.
Adoption is an exciting time in a child’s life, but the day itself can be a little overwhelming at times. To help ease the child’s transition into a safe, permanent home, CASA volunteers like to hand out teddy bears on days of adoption. However, with limited funding available for the smaller details, the teddy bears are often purchased out of the volunteer’s pocket.
For more information on CASA in Pocahontas County or to volunteer, call 304-645-5437, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.CASAadvocates.org.