The Court Appointed Special Advocates for the 3rd and 16th Judicial Court are looking for a few good volunteers to help make a difference in a child's life. The CASA program offers a volunteer opportunity like no other. As officers of the court, CASA volunteers, also known in some areas as volunteer guardians ad litem (GALs), are empowered to make a lifelong difference in the lives of abused and neglected children.
It all started with just one judge in Seattle, Wash. In 1977, Superior Court Judge David Soukup was concerned about trying to make decisions on behalf of abused and neglected children without having enough information. He conceived the idea of appointing community volunteers to speak up for the best interests of these children in court. He made a request for volunteers; 50 citizens responded, and that was the start of the CASA movement.
Today, there are more than 68,000 advocates serving in 1,018 state and local program offices nationwide. CASA programs across the country are known by several different names, including Guardian ad Litem, Child Advocates and Voices for Children. In Sharp County, there are currently 13 sworn volunteers and two who recently completed training to become volunteers. In Fulton and Izard County, there are seven sworn volunteers with two in training. "We monitor the child, we talk with the child, and we monitor every aspect of that child's life, to be sure that the judge gets a well-rounded picture of what their life is like, and what influences are at play in that child's life," said Amber Jines, CASA coordinator for Sharp County.
Since the inception of CASA advocacy, volunteers have helped more than two million children find safe, permanent homes in which they can thrive.
People who give their time to CASA advocacy come from many different places. Some have years of education and professional experience working for children and families. Some have themselves grown up in the foster care system and felt the sorrow of having to move from home to home.
"Our main goal is to speak for the child. That's what our purpose is," says Karen McFarren, CASA coordinator for Fulton and Izard County. "We check on how they're doing in school and how their counseling is going. We make sure to visit the children once a month, to evaluate their home life and we keep in touch with them as well by phone."
Being a CASA volunteer does not require any special education or background, simply the desire to help abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes.
So what does it take to become a CASA volunteer? The first step for every new volunteer is a background check and participation in a 30-hour training course. After successfully completing the training, the volunteer is assigned their first case.
A volunteer's average time commitment to a case is approximately 10 hours per month. Volunteer advocates are asked to dedicate themselves to a case until it is closed, with the average case lasting about a year and a half. Advocates are supervised every step of the way and always have resources readily available, plus they are never put into a situation that could in any way be dangerous to them.
"We do a court report for the judge, covering a family history, how the parents are doing, and especially how the children are doing, and then we have a place where we can put our concerns for the child, so the judge can then court order what help is necessary," says McFarren.
Not ready to be a volunteer, but looking for a way to help? The generosity of individual donors has been instrumental in allowing CASA to expand their efforts in developing greater awareness of the CASA cause nationally, providing more effective training and support services to local and state programs and helping to ensure that policymakers are aware of the issues facing abused and neglected children.
"Donations help us pay for office supplies, and help reimburse fuel costs for volunteers, because a lot of times they're going to each edge of the county, and they need that reimbursement. We pay for all of the training and supplies, and each year we go to the Children in the Courts conference, sponsored by Arkansas CASA," said Jines. "It helps us help the kids. That's what's most important, helping the children."
To become a volunteer or to donate to the local CASA, contact Fulton and Izard County Coordinator Karen McFarren at 870-895-3764 or Sharp County Coordinator Amber Jines at 870-994-7844.