By Linda Kor —
The Navajo County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program will receive special notice on statewide television beginning June 1 when a 30-second commercial will begin airing as a promotion for the state lottery. The commercial was filmed in Winslow, and features 13-year-old Michael Harrison, who resides there, as does his CASA Jay Rominger, a retired FBI agent from Pinetop.
Rominger has been Michael’s voice on his journey through foster care and the myriad of court appointments, informing judges and attorneys regarding Michael’s circumstances and any struggles with which he may be dealing.
In the commercial Michael, an endearing redhead who has clearly bonded with the sincere, self-assured Rominger, talks of Rominger as “one of his top friends,” who has helped him with “every part” of his life. Rominger, in turn, relates how he firmly expects to be there when Michael graduates from college and when his children are baptized. Viewing the bond between the boy and the man brings to the forefront the human element of a situation that could otherwise be easily forgotten as just another case number.
A majority of the funding for Arizona CASA comes from lottery funds, and the commercial focuses on the aspect of what money spent on the lottery will be used for instead of the more self-serving slogan of “You can’t win if you don’t play.”
For Michael, who has been in the foster care system for five years, as well as the 750 other children in foster care in Arizona, the big win would be to have what Navajo County CASA program coordinator Kirk Grugel calls a “forever family.” “We (CASAs) are the one constant in a child’s life as they go through the system. The judges may change, the attorneys, everyone…except us,” he explained.
At one time Navajo County had 32 CASA volunteers, but that number has been reduced to 16. According to Grugel, there are a lot of factors that contribute to the decline, such as volunteers who move, or life circumstances, but the inability to acquire more volunteers he sees as a result of the recession because people have less time for volunteer work. “One thing I know, no one has left the program because of the children. It’s difficult work, but very fulfilling,” noted Grugel.
With 130 children currently in foster care in Navajo County, the volunteers at hand are not able to address the needs of all of these young victims. Grugel is constantly on the lookout for more volunteers so that each of these children can have a voice in a system often confusing for adults.
He explained that in the past 24 years, millions of dollars in free social work has been done by CASA volunteers. The CASA program is not funded by the county, but relies primarily on lottery funding for a budget of approximately $73,000, a reduction of 20 percent over the past three years.
Although difficult, Grugel looks through each case and provides what he calls “triage” for each child, then looks to CASA volunteers for help. If he’s not able to find a CASA, he turns to his current volunteers to see if anyone can provide services for one more child. “Each one of those children has the wish for a forever family and I believe this commercial will make this come true for Michael.”
To view the commercial in it’s full, unedited length, go to www.azcourts.gov/casa. For more information on how to become a CASA volunteer in Navajo County, call (928) 524-4135.