By CHRIS MORRIS
NEW ALBANY —
Can you picture yourself as an advocate for abused or neglected children — making sure that all facts and information are in the court’s hands to ensure the child’s interests are protected?
If so, CASA —Court Appointed Special Advocates — may be just for you.
Since 1987, CASA volunteers have been standing by children, making sure their voices and concerns are heard. They are appointed by judges and provide information through interviews with parents, foster parents or caretakers to the court to help protect the child and make sure decisions made are in that child’s best interests.
And this is all volunteer work.
“These are great folks who take time out of their lives and do whatever it takes to help these kids. They are to be applauded,” said Kim Grantz, director of the Floyd County CASA.
CASA volunteers are assigned cases and write reports to the court, separate from the case worker appointed by Child Protective Services. The judge reviews both reports before making a decision on the future of the child which may include permanent removal from the home.
“It’s a proven program to assist and make sure the court has an independent view of what is going on with the family,” said Floyd County Circuit Court Judge Terrence Cody. “They are the eyes and ears of the court.”
Cody said many times, CASA volunteers the CPS case worker have the same view or write similar reports. He said Floyd County is fortunate to have a strong CPS department. He also praised the work of CPS attorney Michelle Marquand.
“We are fortunate to have well-trained case managers and child protection services has an excellent attorney,” Cody said. “This program [CASA] has been highly effective and well run.”
There are CASA programs in 70 of Indiana’s 92 counties and Grantz said there are around 40 active CASA volunteers in Floyd County. She said she, and volunteer coordinator Rebecca Gardenour are always looking for good volunteers. She said there are usually two training sessions held each year.
“In the 1990s, we struggled to have enough volunteers for all the children, so the judge appointed CASA volunteers to the more serious cases,” Grantz said. “Now we can provide an advocate for each child.”
There are three husband and wife teams who act as CASA volunteers in Floyd County. She said many times the program attracts retirees who are passionate about children.
“It’s about half and half, retired folks and those who work out of the house,” Grantz said. “They are all unique and bring a lot to the table. These are people who want to invest their time and heart to children.”
“It takes a special person,” said Gardenour, a retired social worker who has been involved in the program for eight years. “They are assigned after a hearing. They talk to a case manager, visit the children at least once a month as long as that child is involved in the court.”
Grantz and Gardenour said the ultimate goal is to reunite the children with their parents. But the road to get to reunification can be an emotional one.
“The CASA makes sure the child’s rights are protected,” Gardenour said. “There are some tough case.”
The training is nationally certified and consists of a 30-hour curriculum over a period of several weeks which focuses on the child’s welfare, juvenile court process and the role of the volunteer advocate.
“They walk in tandem with DCS [Department of Child Services], but they don’t necessarily agree with them all the time,” said Grantz who has been coordinator in both Floyd and Washington counties for 19 years. “It’s like a big puzzle with missing pieces and we have something unique to bring to the table. And it’s not always what I am doing for the kids, but what they are doing for me.”
Gardenour was a volunteer in the program before becoming the volunteer coordinator. She said the training does a good job preparing the volunteers, but admits “we forget how intimidating it can be.” Either Gardenour or Grantz accompany the CASA volunteers to court, and on their first or second home visit. Grantz said none of their volunteers have ever been threatened.
“Safety is always paramount with our volunteers. We have never had an incident,” Grantz said. “We make ourselves as available to them as we can. We are always in contact with our volunteers.”
Gardenour said her and Grantz work well together to “help make the program grow.” She said the Floyd County CASA program, which is funded by both the state and St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities, “is very well respected.”
Grantz said CASA receives new cases each week and some volunteers have more than one case.
“I value their input,” Cody said. “I get written reports from the CASA volunteer and the case worker and compare them. They are well-trained and the training they receive shows up in the courtroom. They are a bunch of passionate people.”
The next training program begins in January. Those interested can call 812-948-0438, ext. 13 or ext. 10 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Clark County, CASA falls under the auspices of Clark County Circuit Court IV, and also actively seeks volunteers. Shay Grahn is the program director, and she can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 812-285-0743.