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When Washington County Senior Judge Kathy Emery thinks back to the late 1990’s, she remembers Tasha Lanham and suggests the child’s story motivated people to do something different, something better.
You might remember as well. Tasha was seven years old, but weighed twelve pounds when she died of starvation. The reaction was universal. We can’t let this happen again.
But it did happen again, a few years later. A toddler died from neglect and abuse.
Out of these tragedies, hope was born. A group of concerned citizens, representatives from child welfare agencies and county judges met for a feasibility study. One suggestion was to create CASA for Kids, the Washington branch of a national organization founded to give judges enough accurate information to make sure children’s needs, no -children’s lives- are safeguarded and cherished.
“In my 26 years as a judge,” Emery says. “Nothing was more important than the juvenile court.”
Twenty years ago, CASA for Kids was founded. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. When a judge needs more information, he or she assigns a specially-trained CASA volunteer as the go-between. The volunteer gets to know the child… let’s call her Katie… and learns about her life. Who is Katie? What does she like to do? What does she need and want? Many of the professionals who work with the families are required to serve conflicting interests. And sometimes, it’s difficult to get a true picture of the child’s world. In the court system, without a CASA, the Katie’s of this world can be invisible, voiceless and lonely.
Court of Common Pleas Judge Traci McDonald understands the value of CASA volunteers.
“A CASA is a neutral party who can come in and be part of a child’s life,” she says. “It gives us a view inside the home, a resource into what’s really happening and provide reliable information that is not available anywhere else. Sometimes, the CASA becomes the most consistent person in the child’s life, a life which can be traumatic.”
Judges are more likely to assign CASA volunteers to their most complex, serious cases – cases in which children are at higher risk. Children like the two toddlers Marrina P. and her husband welcomed two days after they were certified as foster parents. The 1½ year old girl was feral: non-verbal and autistic. The boy, who was a year older, had debilitating anxiety. It was challenging.
Marrina said “Caseworkers change often. Staffers who supervise family visits are not consistent. Foster parents have few rights. CASA can be the only consistent person.”
Despite the difficulties, Marrina knew she had to care for these children.
“If the CASA hadn’t been there and I didn’t know what to do, things could have gone badly,” she remembers. “She was great. She spoke at a review hearing and did amazing work. She made me feel like our kids were SEEN.”
Over twenty years, 325 volunteers have been the voice and the spotlight for 1434 local children.
Research backs up the positive outcomes.
Children in foster care who have a CASA by their side are more likely to find a safe, permanent home, and to succeed in school.
“Current economic stresses increase the pressure on families, and stress equals child abuse,” Emery says. “I’d like a CASA on every case.”
Marrina agrees. “There are not enough CASA’s. I had to wait four months for one, but I needed her ASAP. What a difference they can make.”
What about Marrina’s foster children? There is a happy ending. Marrina and her husband adopted them and they are thriving. The girl went from non-verbal to verbal, and her son is happy and exhibits no signs of anxiety.
“I’m not being a partial parent when I say they’re amazing. My kids are the absolute best.”
Volunteers give the children a voice and more.
CASA volunteer extraordinaire Jackie Y admits, “I don’t know how to help except to give them your heart. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who lived like that. It opened my eyes to how many neglected and abused children there are who need attention and love.”
“If I can provide opportunities to a child who is struggling,” another volunteer shares, “it is a blessing to the entire community.”
You can change a child’s story. Join the team where the only opponent is child abuse and neglect.
Interested in volunteering? Go to casawashington.org.