CASA: Providing Emotional Shelter to Children
Casa means house in Spanish and, in its verb form, “to house” means to provide shelter. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteers are shelter providers, working toward placing abused children in safe, permanent homes by advocating for them while they are in the court system. The reliable presence of a caring CASA volunteer also provides a trusted emotional shelter for the frightened, confused child.
“There are thousands of kids in our area who have been abused and neglected,” said Tulsa CASA Executive Director, Maura Wilson. “They need people to speak on their behalf. Children can’t speak up and articulate their wishes and can’t always speak in their best interest. CASA volunteers are trained to meet all the parties involved in a child abuse/neglect case—kids, attorneys, parents, teachers, social workers, therapists—and write a recommendation to the courts on what would be best for the child.”
Wilson, who has worked with the CASA organization for 15 years, both in Oklahoma and Arkansas, is passionate about her job.
“I’d love to see a CASA on every case,” Wilson said. “We served 306 children in 2012 with 122 volunteers. But there were probably another 1400 kids who could have used a volunteer.”
“Being a CASA provides me an avenue to make a difference in the life of a child,” said Jamie Belger, a CASA volunteer for the last eight years. “My experiences have been life-changing for me.”
In her time as a CASA, Belger has been assigned five cases involving a total of 12 children. Her first case involved 12-year-old Lucy (name changed), a child Belger will never forget.
“Lucy’s story included physical abuse and neglect by her parents, drug and alcohol abuse by her parents, her mother’s boyfriend sexually abusing her, incarceration of her father, her parents divorcing and the families pitting one against the other.”
According to Belger, Lucy had been in the system since she was 4 years old and by the time she “aged out” [turned 18], she had been in over 25 placements.
“She was moved among her grandparents, her mother, shelters, various hospitals and institutions and different foster care homes,” Belger said. “Every time a child is moved, everything in their world changes: schools, therapists, case workers, and even doctors. It is an overwhelming, gut wrenching, and anxiety-filled experience for the child. When Lucy was moved to foster care in another town, I called to visit with her soon after she arrived. When she got on the phone, she exclaimed with much delight and relief, ‘Jamie! You found me! I knew my Jamie would find me!’”
“The CASAs may be the only stable presence in the life of an abused or neglected child,” Wilson said. “Foster families may change, social workers and attorneys come and go, but the CASA is committed to stay on the case, working toward the best outcome for the child.”
According to both Wilson and Belger the work can be difficult, but is very rewarding.
“When you are in the thick of it [the investigation], there are frustrations and aggravations,” Wilson said. “But when you look back and see the lives you’ve touched, you know you were able to make a difference.”
Wilson said that CASA volunteers don’t need to have special skills, and come from all walks of life, from students to stay-at-home moms.
“I started as a young professional and continued when I was pregnant and a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “The only qualifications are to be 21 years old, pass a background check, commit to one year’s service (or the life of a case), and have a desire to help.”
Volunteers are extensively trained once they are accepted into the program. CASA managers then support and advise the volunteers.
According to Wilson, statistics prove that CASA volunteers can make a huge difference in the outcome of a case. “When a CASA is on the case, the child is less likely to come back into care and more likely to find permanency faster.”
A big moment for Belger was when Lucy graduated from high school. “That was a big goal of mine for her,” Belger said, “so I was thrilled when I received the invitation to her graduation party and graduation.”
Even though Lucy had turned 18 and was no longer in the program, Belger attended “as a very proud CASA. We still remain in contact,” she said. “Lucy is not in trouble and is doing well.”
Belger got involved with CASA because of her conviction that “we all have a responsibility to help those who do not have a voice. People often ask me, ‘How do you do it?’” she said. “My reply is, ‘How can I not?’”
CASA is always in need of volunteers. If you are interested in working on behalf of abused and neglected children contact CASA at www.tulsacasa.org or 918-584-2272.