CASA volunteers make a world of difference
April 18, 2019
Each year, hundreds of youngsters in Boulder County enter the child welfare system. It’s a complex and fraught system, but Voices for Children (VFC), a nonprofit organization based in Gunbarrel, helps children and their families find a path out.
Niwot-based Debra Reed Fowler Real Estate (DRF) has been an active supporter of VFC’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for three years. In March, her team donated $1,000 to help the organization continue to advocate on behalf of neglected and abused children.
Gillian Marie, DRF’s Team Administrator explained that CASA is important to Fowler because, “She talks often about how one person in your life, who believes in you, can change your life and she believes in giving children the best start they can have.“
CASA’s executive director, Jacob Harmon, said, “We serve abused children in Boulder County by providing qualified, trained volunteers to advocate for them throughout the court system. The work we’re doing is really building a healthier community. There’s recent research that has shown that the kids we’re serving live an average of seven years less than their peers.” They also have higher levels of substance abuse and incarceration, but with the help of CASA volunteers, that dynamic is changing.
While social workers are assigned to each child, they may have a caseload of 20 to 30 kids at once, and there’s frequent turnover. But CASAs are assigned to just one child or one family at a time, allowing them to be more detail-oriented and available for the children.
Harmon said, “CASAs create better outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens. The CASA is that objective, independent, and constant presence in the kid’s life.”
Children most often enter the welfare system, because their parents are struggling with substance abuse and their home environment has become unsafe. Or parents may have mental health issues, the child may have been physically or emotionally abused by family members, or they may have experienced sex trafficking. As a result, the child is placed in a foster care situation while their parents are getting their lives in order.
Any time a child is removed from a home in Boulder County, there’s an emergency hearing and CASA is called into action.
Harmon said, “The magistrate of Boulder County has decided that the service CASA provides is so valuable that she now automatically appoints a CASA to every new case. “
Two years ago there were 125 CASA volunteers, but today there are 267 in the ranks. The organization’s goal is to serve every child in Boulder County’s child welfare system, which means 100 more recruits are needed in 2019. So far this year, they’ve brought on 30 new CASAs.
CASAs are prepared for their roles with 40 hours of training, which covers how the child welfare system operates, the psychological ramifications of trauma and ways to support children experiencing it. VFC has attorneys and social workers on staff to support CASAs in their efforts around the clock.
“CASAs can be really effective and transformational in kids’ lives in about 20 hours a month, that’s just four to five hours a week,” Harmon said, dispelling the myth that volunteers have to be retired or independently wealthy to participate.
The most fundamental role of a CASA is to build a relationship in which the child feels heard and trusted unconditionally. “So many of the kids in the child welfare system have been ignored to the point where they feel they have no ability to advocate for themselves because no one listens to them and nobody trusts them,” Harmon said.
CASAs and their kids often spend time just hanging out together, going to museums, playing games, or taking a walk. Many of the children in the program haven’t been given an opportunity to enjoy these types of experiences so that time together solidifies a relationship.
Reuniting families may take up to 18 months, and during that time it’s essential for children to know they are not going it alone; they have a mentor, a friend, and an expert to help them, so they stay in school, pursue their interests, heal emotionally and feel valued.
The role of a CASA is also to coordinate with other parts of the system – social workers, attorneys, parents, and foster parents - to make sure the child’s needs are met. Given what each CASA knows of the child and the child’s situation, their advice to the court is critical in deciding what is best for the child.
“The courts really rely on the CASA volunteer to get a sense of where the kid is in the process. They know what the child needs in order to succeed and thrive,” Harmon said.
While governmental funds provide 40 percent of their operating revenue, VFC primarily relies on the community’s generosity to offer their services. This year’s annual operating budget will come to more than $500,000.
Donations to CASA fall under the Colorado Child Contribution Credit and may qualify for a 50 percent tax credit on state taxes.
CASA will be holding its 6th annual Light of Hope luncheon at 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, at Folsom Field. This event is one of two critical fundraising events held each year. During the event, highlighting the compelling work of the organization by profiling CASAs and the children they’ve worked with will bring home the importance and success of the organization.
To learn more about CASA, to volunteer or donate, and to attend the upcoming fundraising event, visit: http://www.vfccasa.org.