By Julie Wiessner
The Navajo County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program is seeking volunteers to fill as many positions in the north county as possible. Currently, there are 150 children countywide in need of a CASA, excluding tribal lands, which have their own court systems. Of that number, half live in the northern half of the county.
Despite those numbers, this area has only one CASA while the south county has 20 CASA’s who are the eyes, ears and spokespersons for children in the court system who can’t speak for themselves during a time of vulnerability and fear.
“We are looking for everyday, common sense people who are dedicated, have a high moral character, and a strong desire to advocate for abused and neglected children,” said Navajo County CASA Coordinator Kirk Grugel.
The CASA volunteer develops a steady relationship with the child when so many other relationships may change. “A child’s family may change, their lawyers may change, but a CASA is the one thing that stays constant in that child’s life and speaks for what is in the best interest of that child,” noted Grugel.
“The main objective of the CASA organization is to get kids back with their parents. This is the best way for the child all around. It just does not always work out that way,” Grugel said.
CASA volunteering is a deeply rewarding advocacy experience for those who decide to become a CASA. Linda Hallman has been a CASA for more than 17 years, and is the only one currently in the north county who speaks for these children.
Hallman explained why she has continued as a CASA for so long. “I do it for the children, because there is no one that will speak up for them,” she said.
“At first I was volunteering for my own kids with the Boy and Girl Scouts, at games, for prom nights and all of the regular school functions. But now, all of my children have grown. I have to say that now I volunteer for me.”
“I think our CASA’s are satisfied by what they are doing. They know they are making a huge difference in a child’s life. It is such a worthwhile experience for them that I don’t lose CASA’s unless they move away,” said Grugel.
How does someone begin the process to become a CASA once they’ve decided they want to be a voice for these children?
Prospective CASA volunteers must submit an application, provide recommendations and have an interview, be fingerprinted and go through a background check. They will complete 30 hours of training, including 15 hours at the CASA of Arizona’s Advocacy Academy in Phoenix and 15 hours at the local county program.
CASA volunteers are trained in child welfare issues from experts in the field. The issues include child maltreatment, permanency planning, negotiation and interviewing, case assessment and court report writing. Ongoing and online training are available as well.
All of the training, travel expenses and meals are paid by the program for individuals wishing to become a CASA. They will be sworn in as an officer of the court and attend four court meetings a year for a child.
Why are CASA’s important in the lives of these children? Presiding Judge Michala Ruechel noted, “CASA volunteers are considered part of the legal team to do what’s right for families. Sometimes, the CASA is the only one who brings concerns up before the judge for consideration.”
CASA volunteers spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a month on an assigned case. More than that is spent at the beginning of each new assignment to research files and court documents, conduct interviews and become familiar with the case. They arrange to do these things around their own schedules.
A CASA volunteer will remain on a case until it is permanently resolved, but volunteers are asked to commit to the program for at least two years.
CASA volunteers differ from attorneys and a Child Protective Services case manager in that they speak exclusively for the child’s best interest. The volunteers can do that because they have talked with teachers, parents, grandma, neighbors and anyone who might shed some light on how the child is doing.
Statistics from September 2007 to September 2012 show that Arizona has experienced a 48 percent increase in the number of children in out of home care, the highest in the nation. The next closest is Oregon, with approximately 19 percent of children in out of home care.
If you are interested in becoming a Navajo County CASA volunteer, contact Grugel at (928) 524-4135.
By Julie Wiessner