Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Mercer and Burlington Counties recruits, screens, and trains community volunteers to speak up for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers are often described as the “eyes and ears of Family Court” and for many children in the foster care system, they represent the one consistent presence in their lives. Ultimately, the goal of the organization is to help these children find safe and permanent families and homes, whether it be with their parents, another family member, or through adoption.
On any given day in Mercer and Burlington counties, there are nearly 1,000 children in out of-home placements (living in foster homes, group homes, or residential facilities). This past year 285 children were served by 191 CASA volunteers in these counties, but even with the addition of 64 new volunteers, there is still a wide gap to fill; particularly in Mercer County.
CASA has taken strong steps to increase its ranks of dedicated volunteers, who are required to undergo 32 hours of pre-service training and three hours of courtroom observation. Just a few years ago, CASA held two training sessions a year; now summer and winter sessions have been added. In 2015 a blended learning curriculum of online and in-person training will be added for the convenience of volunteers.
CASA volunteers visit with their child (or children, if siblings are involved) every two weeks. They collect information about the child through visits with the foster parents, biological parents, teachers, therapists, child welfare workers, and other adults actively involved with the life of the child. The volunteers investigate the facts of the case, recommend a course of action to the court, facilitate problem resolution, and monitor the progress towards the established goals. They make recommendations based on these facts to the court.
As the one constant in their lives, they are the ones who remember the IEP (Individualized Education Program) when a child changes schools, and make sure another one is in place. They make sure the child receives proper medical care. They ensure that a budding artist has art supplies, or that siblings visit each other when separated, or a psychological assessment is done when warranted.
Lori Morris, CASA executive director, adds, “It is a very professional level of volunteering. Almost immediately, our CASA volunteers recognize how important their role is to the child. They soon become the expert on the case, because unlike child welfare workers, they only have a caseload of one child or sibling group.”
“Volunteers come from all walks of life. Some work full-time,” continues Ms. Morris. Volunteering takes between five and 15 hours a month. There is a high demand for more volunteers in general and they especially need male, African-American, and Latino volunteers.
“The children usually want to return to their families. It is our hope their parents can be rehabilitated so that can happen. Children never give up hope of having their own families. On Adoption Day held last month, a 19-year-old woman was adopted and she was overjoyed.” CASA provides the children a voice so they don’t fall through the cracks of the vast child welfare system and languish in foster care while they are waiting for permanency to be achieved.
A CASA volunteer must be at least 21 years old. Those interested in volunteering may contact CASA at 609-434-0050 to attend an information session at CASA’s office or an information session can be brought on-site to a business or corporation.
CASA of Mercer County, 1450 Parkside Avenue, Suite 22, Ewing. 609-434-0050. www.casamercer.org.