CASA of Crawford County keeps eye on foster kids
“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.”
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.