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2020 Nov

Making a Difference with CASA

Volunteering for CASA Helps kids who really need it.

Are you looking for a way to help children in need who may have experienced abuse, neglect, or homelessness? Become a CASA volunteer and make a difference in the course of a child’s life.

CASA, or court appointed special advocates, is a national organization with a presence in all Hampton Roads cities. Its compassionate volunteers work with children who have come before the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court because of special needs that could range from abuse to truancy or other behavior problems. Some have been removed from the biological home, while others may remain with the family but be considered in need of services.

The volunteer must learn to be non-judgmental about the parents, some of whom are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or extreme poverty, said Norfolk CASA volunteer Josiah Robinson. He added that some of these parents were themselves the victims of abuse, while some of the children may become truant because of poverty or because of special educational needs that haven’t been diagnosed.

Volunteers, who range in age from their early 20s to their 80s, are trained to work with the child, the family, social workers, educators, and the court system to ensure that the best decisions are made about the child’s placement and services and that the child’s educational, physical, and emotional needs are met.

“There are various factors,” said Portsmouth CASA volunteer Arthur Robinson. “It isn’t just abuse.” He added that he’d worked with one child who was caught in-between parents involved in a very bitter custody dispute.

You Assist The Judge in Determining The Child’s Future

You Provide Non-Biased Third-Party Information To The Courts

As program coordinator of Portsmouth CASA, Kelly Califano oversees 30 volunteers who act as “the eyes and ears of the court” by compiling information and making recommendations to the judge that will help to determine the child’s future. These volunteers work with foster and biological parents, therapists, and teachers to gather as much information as possible about the child and family situation, then write the report that aids the judge in decision-making. In some cases, they may attend court hearings and testify.

“They are a non-biased third party when the judge needs extra information,” said Kelly.

Prospective volunteers must have 30 hours of training, which includes observing court cases, and they are asked to commit to at least 12 months of volunteer work. Although many volunteers are flexible about the ages of the children they work with, some have preferences, and Kelly tries to match them to the age that they prefer.

“There are special challenges with each group,” Kelly said, as well as rewards. While teenagers usually don’t bond as quickly as younger children, the volunteer can sometimes become a mentor after developing a relationship.

Cases that involve sexual abuse often take the heaviest toll on volunteers but can be especially rewarding, Kelly said. “Cases that are hard can bring a greater sense of satisfaction.”

In Norfolk, 25 percent of the children who are served by CASA are in their biological home, according to Olivia Rasquiza, program director. Across the harbor in Newport News, however, Program Director Angela Glaspell only works with children who are living outside of their biological home, in foster homes or in relative placement.

Newport News CASA’s volunteers serve 69 children and, as in the other cities, it’s possible that a volunteer could continue to work with youth after they reach 18 if they choose to remain in foster care, which they can do until they are 21. The Newport News volunteers receive seven weeks of training before working with the children, families, and educators and, in some cases might engage the child in recreational activities or attend an event that the child’s involved in, although they can’t provide sole supervision because of liability issues.

Norfolk CASA usually serves 130-175 children each year, Olivia said, and these cases may include custody disputes. That city has about 50 active volunteers, and while most say that they’re willing to work with any child who needs them the most, others think that cases of extreme sexual or physical abuse would be too hard to handle.

Norfolk also has a particular need right now for volunteers who can take sibling groups, which requires an extra commitment of time.

Passionate Volunteers Forge Relationships & Mold Futures

It’s The Ideal Way To Give Back To The Community

With all of time, training, and potential emotional turmoil involved, what drives the volunteers?

“If I can move the needle just a little bit, the kid might be able to get into a better life,” said Arthur.

“It’s all about passion,” said Angela, who served as a volunteer in upstate New York before coming to Portsmouth. “The volunteers always say that if they can make a difference in one child’s life, it’s worth it.”

Norfolk volunteer Joy Booker-Hill loves making a difference with children. She served as a volunteer mentor while she was a college student, and she’s worked with children for 20 year. Still, she feels the need to volunteer in her spare time.

“I want to reach children outside of school as well as in school,” Joy said. The reward, she said, comes when she earns the child’s trust, and that can be particularly challenging with teenagers.

“Teenagers don’t like to open up as much,” she said. “They sometimes think that you will judge them.” The trick, she said, is not to try to force relationships but to try to engage the child in conversation about her activities, interests, or special strengths. It’s important “to give the judge an idea of what that child is,” she said.

Like other volunteers, Joy has had to adapt to the current pandemic by meeting with children through Zoom or through telephone conferences. This doesn’t entirely replace in-person visits, she said, “but we do our best to make it work.”

Norfolk volunteer Josiah Robinson was inspired to go to law school partly because of his work as a CASA volunteer in Tulsa, OK. He continues to volunteer because he recognizes the need for an advocate and a voice for children caught up in the court system. Many of the children have been abused or neglected, but Josiah also has compassion for the parents, many of whom are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or homelessness, or who were themselves victims of child abuse.

Family problems can sometimes make it hard for children to attend school, Josiah said, and in other cases truancy occurs because the child has some special needs that haven’t been diagnosed. He works with the school system to find the best placement for that child, and he finds that children are especially “resilient” and able to overcome obstacles when given the chance.

“There is a very real need for CASA,” Josiah said. “It’s a very practical way to give back to the community.”

“CASA volunteers are the boots on the ground making a difference in these children’s lives,” said Angela.

Jane Bloodworth Rowe, PhD

Jane Bloodworth Rowe is a freelance writer and adjunct assistant professor who has written for local publications, including The Princess Anne Independent News.

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