CASA: Making the difference in the life of a child
September 21, 2012
At age 62, Jeanette Dunham literally plunged off the deep end in order to be an effective Court-Appointed Special Advocate.
It wasn’t a requirement for the volunteer position, but the Genoa resident found herself jumping off the high dive at the Carson Valley Swim Center on an outing with her “CASA kid.”
Dunham has been a volunteer for three years, and recently sat down with three other CASAs to talk about the program which pairs adults with children who require services of the court.
Training is set to begin in October for new volunteers, following information meetings this week.
There are as many reasons for court intervention as there are children: Custody battles, abuse, neglect, foster care.
While the responsibility may be daunting, the volunteers agree that the basic qualification is a love for children.
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Retired attorney John Garvin, 77, has been a CASA volunteer for 10 years.
“I came up here to retire, but I found I didn’t like just sitting around,” Garvin said.
He met District Court Judge Dave Gamble who told him about “the marvelous mission” of the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, to be an independent voice for a child in court.
Garvin said he brings two skills to the table, an ability to run a parallel investigation under the CASA guidelines, and he is “somebody in the community who has been on the planet long enough.”
“It is work,” he said. “The job is to speak for the child, write a report, and recommend what is in the child’s best interest.”
Garvin said he’s been working with families with older children.
“Of late, I’ve had teenagers. It reminded me of my own experience with my teenagers, and I remember it well. Life is a lot more complicated.”
Garvin said most volunteers are women, and he would encourage more men to participate.
Volunteer Cathy Garrison, 49, agreed. She represented a teenage boy in a previous case, and said she would have welcomed input from a male perspective.
“This is a worthwhile activity,” Garvin said. “I would not trade my 10 years work with children and parents for anything. It leaves me with a good feeling.”
Once a CASA receives a case, they are responsible for doing an in-depth investigation into the child’s life. The volunteer interviews everybody involved with the child from family members to coaches to teachers.
The CASA looks into any family history of criminal activity, police reports or drug abuse and compiles that information into a file the court uses to rule in the best interest of the child.
Denise Geissinger, 54, a three-year volunteer, encouraged prospective CASAs not to be intimidated by the responsibility of preparing an investigative report to be presented to the district court judge.
“The most important thing is that you love children,” Geissinger said. “We give the judge an opportunity to understand what the child’s life is like at home through the child’s eyes. The parents have attorneys, the child has no one to tell their side of what is going on for them.”
Garrison said it can be difficult to report the facts, especially in cases of abuse or neglect. But, she said CASA director Linda Cuddy and her staff provide comprehensive training.
“Training is very thorough,” she said. “We learn report writing, guidelines, pitfalls, and how to protect ourselves.”
Retired lawyer Garvin said the prospect of a court appearance can be intimidating for a new CASA.
“The judges appreciate our time volunteering and stand up for us in court,” Geissinger said.
They emphasized that no volunteer is sent into court until he or she is ready, and their report has been thoroughly reviewed and edited by the CASA staff.
“Linda (Cuddy) and Terry (Palmitier) always have your back. The bench strength is very, deep, very broad,” Garrison said.
Palmitier is retiring this year to devote full time to Austin’s House, a shelter for children temporarily removed from their families.
Her place as assistant coordinator will be taken over by Geissinger.
The nature of the work means that volunteers become deeply connected to the children and their families, and it’s easy to get too immersed.
“It’s important for children and parents to see somebody cares who isn’t being paid to care. It’s our role as CASAs to show a lot of respect, and to not make value judgments,” Dunham said.
CASAs take their children on approved outings which is how Dunham ended up on the high dive at Carson Valley Swim Center.
“You can do as much or as little as you’re comfortable with, as long as the judge gets the story he needs to handle the case,” Garrison said.
Cuddy said she has 29 active CASA volunteers, and can always use more. That gives Cuddy’s veterans a chance for a break.
In 2011, Douglas County CASAs handled 103 cases, serving 170 children. Cuddy said the caseload has more than doubled in five years.
She said the training consists of 30 hours of classroom work and 10 hours in the courtroom.
In addition to Garvin, the other three volunteers bring varied backgrounds to their CASA roles.
Geissinger and her husband owned a cabinet shop and lived in Hawaii for five years before moving to Douglas County.
Garrison worked at the executive level in managing transportation logistics.
She had never worked with children before becoming a volunteer.
“If you love kids, you can do this job,” she said.
Dunham retired from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where she was a technical writer for 30 years.
“I like feeling valuable, I like contributing something to society,” she said.
But her desire to help runs deeper.
“I had an abusive childhood and I could have used a CASA myself,” she said.
The biggest reward, all agreed, is making a positive difference in a child’s life, “to help give a child a life he or she would have never had,” Garrison said.
Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Douglas County is holding two information meetings to recruit volunteers for the program which assigns trained adults to represent the interests of children ages 0-19 in the court system in custody cases, or for reports of abuse and neglect.
The orientation sessions are Thursday at 10 a.m. and Friday at 2 p.m. in the district courtroom in the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center in Minden.
Classes for new volunteers begin Oct. 3 and will be held at the Douglas County campus of Western Nevada College in Minden.
For information and class schedule, contact Linda Cuddy at 782-6247.