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CASA program helps children

Andy Bourelle

Are you a responsible adult who can talk to people with problems? Do you have some extra time you are willing to commit? Would you like to make a difference? Do you care about children?

If so, maybe you should consider being a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA volunteer.

CASA volunteers are being sought to help out in the Douglas County court system, to make a difference for children who are victims of abuse or neglect.

A CASA is a volunteer who can be assigned to a civil court case where a child is involved. A child often can be lost or confused in a court case dealing with judges, attorneys and social workers, especially when those people don’t necessarily stay involved with the case throughout its duration.

A CASA is a representative for the child, a constant from the case’s beginning to its end, present only to see that the child is given proper attention. The volunteers work with the judge, alongside attorneys and social workers, as an appointed officer of the court. They conduct research on the case by reviewing documents and interviewing everyone involved – the child, the parents, sometimes even neighbors and teachers.

“A CASA can unravel a lot of information nobody else would have access to, by focusing their interest on the child and not the case,” said CASA Deane Tollmann. “What is best for the child? That’s what’s important. By talking to neighbors, teachers, counselors – you can learn a lot about the child.”

The volunteer writes a report for the judge for each hearing, and the judge makes decisions based on what it says.

“They really do pay attention,” said Cheri Warrell of Family Support Council, who runs the training for the CASA program. “Definitely.”

Douglas County District Judge Michael Gibbons agrees.

“CASAs are given as much weight as anyone else,” said Gibbons, “Sometimes more.”

CASAs are asked to volunteer for at least two years, and are generally assigned to one case at a time.

“I have hundreds of cases. Everyone (attorneys, social workers, etc.) involved has dozens or hundreds of cases,” said Gibbons. “But a CASA only works on one case. It’s the only time in the court system where you’ll have one person work on one case. Their only purpose is to protect the child, and they can make sure nothing is overlooked.”

To become a CASA, volunteers go through a 40-hour training period, where they learn about courtroom procedure, interviewing techniques, the social service and juvenile court systems, and the needs of children who have been abused or neglected.

CASA volunteers come from all backgrounds; many have full-time jobs. No legal expertise is necessary.

Tollmann said the training is broken up over a period of weeks, taking up no more time than a night class would. When a case is first assigned, she said, it takes up a significant amount of time doing the initial interviews and learning about the case and the child’s life. But after the first few months, the CASA only needs to spend about four hours a week on the case.

CASAs can make a difference in a child’s life, but being one is not easy.

“It is hard,” said Warrell. “It takes very special people to do it.”

While it is difficult, Tollmann said the time and energy are worth it.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “The impact a CASA can make in a child’s life is tremendous. It’s rewarding having a small role in their life’s journey.”

CASA is a national organization and the Carson Valley has had a program since 1989. Until this year, it has been run by the Family Support Council, but now the Douglas County court system has taken over. The Family Support Council is going to continue the CASA training temporarily, but both the judges and Family Support Council members agreed the court sytstem was a better place for the program.

“The Family Support Council is an outstanding organization,” Gibbons said, “but they have so many programs. The CASA program can be more focused under the direction of the courts. They’ve done a great job, getting it started. We’re just taking it to another level.”

CASAs are involved in civil court, in both abuse or neglect and child custody cases, and the volunteers are assigned at the discretion of the judge involved.

In abuse or neglect cases, the judge has to make decisions about the child’s future with options such as whether or not to have the child taken from the home and put into foster care, whether or not parental rights should be terminated and whether or not the child should be put up for adoption. The CASa’s information helps the judge make his decisions.

Regarding child custody in divorce cases, Gibbons said often one of the parents makes allegations about the care the other parent gives the child such as not feeding the child, using drugs around the child or abusing the child. The CASA’s information can help the judge decide if the accusations are true or if the person making the allegations is just trying to get leverage in the divorce case.

While the CASA is there to help the child and see that he or she gets a voice in court, the volunteer is not supposed to become the child’s best friend. CASAs remain objective in their recommendations, but focus on making sure the child is not lost in the complicated courtroom process.

Tollmann, who has been a volunteer since June 1995 and is working on her third case, was awarded CASA of the year in the spring. Although she works full-time as a broker for Century 21 Clark Properties, she has no intention of quitting and encourages anyone wanting to make a difference to do the same.

Tollmann described the role of a CASA as a “filler,” someone able to fill in the gaps where other departments can’t find information. And the gaps the CASA fills in are germane and important to the cases.

“People often complain about the court system, but this is one time an individual can make a difference,” said Gibbons. “CASAs give real input. The people involved can really make a difference.”

The CASA program currently has about 30 volunteers, which Gibbons described as a “fluid” number because cases constantly begin and end, and CASA volunteers may or may not want to take on another case.

“Occasionally some of the cases are very emotional,” Gibbons said, “and you can only take so much.”

Warrell said she would start a training period when she has 10 to 15 volunteers.

People interested can call Warrell or Executive Director of Family Support Council Karen Edwards at 782-8692.

Edwards has nothing but praise for the CASA volunteers.

“CASAs are very special people,” she said. “It is something they have decided to do for the community and the children of Douglas County. They really care.”