CASA of Craw­ford County keeps eye on fos­ter kids

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGH­TOWER

“About 11 years ago, my kids were get­ting older, I had a lit­tle bit more free time,” says Paula Hig­gins of why she first de­cided to be­come a Court Ap­pointed Spe­cial Ad­vo­cate. CASA of Craw­ford County as­signs Hig­gins to serve as a con­sis­tent set of eyes and ears on the case of a child — or chil­dren, if there are sib­lings — mov­ing through the fos­ter care sys­tem.

“My heart has al­ways been bur­dened by the sto­ries of fam­i­lies in fos­ter care,” she says. “It was a lit­tle bit scary, think­ing of go­ing to other peo­ple’s homes and get­ting all up in their per­sonal busi­ness. But I knew it was an im­por­tant role, one that no one else was do­ing. Home in­ter­ven­tion is what is needed. So I fought my con­cerns and went to the [CASA] train­ing. [The job] gets eas­ier over time, and, thank­fully, you see pos­i­tive re­sults that con­tinue to en­cour­age you so you can just keep on keep­ing on.”

Celeste Lewis, CASA of Craw­ford County ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, says the na­tional CASA pro­gram was started in 1977 by a judge in Seat­tle who re­al­ized he needed more in­for­ma­tion about chil­dren in his caseload in or­der to make the most in­formed de­ci­sions pos­si­ble.

“CASAs talk to teach­ers, doc­tors, at­tor­neys, fos­ter par­ents, bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents and com­pile a writ­ten re­port for the judge so that he has an un­bi­ased, fac­tual re­port,” says Lewis. “What we do is ad­vo­cate for the best in­ter­est of the child, so they don’t linger in fos­ter care.

“Our goal is for per­ma­nency. We are a con­sis­tent per­son in that child’s life. They move of­ten in fos­ter care, so CASA is a fa­mil­iar face, check­ing on them in their place­ment.”

Lewis notes that when she re­cently checked on the his­tory of a 3-year-old cur­rently in the fos­ter care sys­tem in Craw­ford County, the child’s file in­di­cated the child had been moved 10 times since en­ter­ing

into the sys­tem.

Fourth Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman says the con­stancy of a CASA vol­un­teer is a real ben­e­fit for a fos­ter care case.

“CASA vol­un­teers just mean the world to some of these kids, be­cause they have one judge, who is not go­ing to change, but, of­ten times, the DHS case work­ers change. Maybe they move from one fos­ter care home to an­other. The CASA vol­un­teer meets with that child and lets the court know what’s im­por­tant for that child to get as far as ser­vices.

“One time, we had a child who was in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, and ev­ery­one thought he would al­ways be in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized,” Zimmerman con­tin­ues. “The CASA made a con­nec­tion with that child, started talk­ing about ro­bots or some­thing, and that child opened up to her. We were able to put him in a ther­a­peu­tic fos­ter home set­ting. Had his CASA not made that lit­tle con­nec­tion, he would have

been lost to an in­sti­tu­tional set­ting.”

“It was so help­ful to me, to have some­one on my side,” says Anna, who was in the fos­ter care sys­tem as a teenager and is cur­rently at­tend­ing col­lege. “[My CASA vol­un­teer] made phone calls to make sure I was OK. When I was go­ing through adop­tion, she would go with me to talk to my [prospec­tive adop­tive par­ents]. And on court dates, which can be re­ally pres­sur­ing, she would come with me. You need that other per­son with you, and she was al­ways with me.”

Anna says that in the course of the year, she had sev­eral DHS work­ers.

“The first cou­ple, they didn’t stay long, maybe a month or two,” she re­mem­bers.

Her CASA vol­un­teer — and even­tu­ally the case worker who would stay, long term, through the rest of her time in fos­ter care — were the fa­mil­iar faces that helped make her feel safe, se­cure and com­forted.

Lewis says the CASA pro­gram re­quires a 30-hour train­ing, af­ter which the vol­un­teer is sworn in as a “friend of the court,” al­low­ing ac­cess to all per­ti­nent peo­ple and records for their as­signed cases.

“Your case will gen­er­ally take about 10 to 15 hours a month, once you get to know ev­ery­one in the case,” says Lewis. “You’re re­quired to visit the child twice a month. The rest of the time, you’re get­ting in­for­ma­tion and talk­ing to oth­ers in­volved.” She says that vol­un­teers jug­gle their CASA work with full-time jobs, and some vol­un­teers are even stu­dents.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s largest fundraiser of the year, The Taste of Craw­ford County event, is billed as “a culi­nary de­light from around the world.”

“Right now, we have 32 ven­dors,” says Lewis. “We usu­ally have be­tween 750

and 1,000 peo­ple at­tend. They get to sam­ple the food of all the ven­dors, so they know where they can go and eat in the area.” Area restau­rants par­tic­i­pat­ing in­clude Oliver’s South­ern Cui­sine, Con­fec­tion­ately Yours, Stirred Cater­ing and Cof­fee and JC’s BBQ Place. A huge silent auc­tion will of­fer a panoply of choices, like limou­sine rides, spa pack­ages and photo shoot pack­ages, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sional hair and makeup treat­ments. “There are a ton of options. And we have more of­fer­ings than we have ever had be­fore.”

“We also do some­thing kind of unique: We give 200 tick­ets to the Boys & Girls Club of Van Buren, as well as the Boys & Girls Club of Alma,” she says. “So then pro­ceeds of those ticket sales go to those clubs. We’ll do that as long as fund­ing al­lows.” Lewis says funds raised by CASA of Craw­ford County stay lo­cal, di­rectly ben­e­fit­ing area chil­dren in fos­ter care. “We get vol­un­teers through re­cruit­ing and train­ing, so the funds we raise go di­rectly to the chil­dren.”

And more vol­un­teers

are al­ways needed, says Lewis. Cur­rently, CASA of Craw­ford County serves 86 of the 153 chil­dren in fos­ter care in the county. Lewis wants to serve all of them. She sug­gests that those who are ner­vous about do­ing it alone find a friend — or a spouse — to vol­un­teer, too.

“With­out more vol­un­teers, there are chil­dren who don’t have any­one check­ing in on them,” says Lewis. “It’s not that DHS isn’t do­ing their job, but they’re over­whelmed. We want to work as a team with DHS and have a CASA for ev­ery child in fos­ter care.”

“I think of all of the [vol­un­teer jobs] that I’ve done, [and] deal­ing one-on-one with these chil­dren in fos­ter care is most mean­ing­ful,” says Hig­gins. “That re­la­tion­ship is what it takes to make a dif­fer­ence. It’s in­valu­able.”

“I can’t say enough good things about CASA,” says Zimmerman. “CASA re­ally makes a dif­fer­ence for that child in your com­mu­nity.”

Cour­tesy photo

JC’s Bar-B-Que Place is one of 80 ven­dors that will be of­fer­ing de­li­cious tastes of their menus at CASA’s Taste of Craw­ford County fundraiser.

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