WEST HIGHLAND—The most important reason that Heidi Hoback volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is because she has a heart for kids. “Especially those who are marginalized in our society and don’t have the resources other kids do,” said the West Highland resident.
Nancy Stewart, Denver CASA’s Executive Director, said, “CASAs are assigned by the court to a child or children who are in the court system because they have been removed from their home due to abuse or neglect.”
“The role of the CASA is to meet frequently with the child and develop a trusting relationship,” said Hoback, the mother of two grown children. “The CASA visits the school to check on attendance, truancy, mental or physical health needs or other issues.
“I try to meet them at least once a week. I’m in contact with their teachers and know if they are in speech therapy or OT or PT, and I meet with those people as well. I check to confirm they’ve attended doctor appointments.”
“In Colorado, every child is assigned a guardian ad litem (GAL), so they have their own attorney,” Stewart said. GALs are court-appointed to represent and protect the interest of a minor. She said, “There’s also a caseworker assigned to the case. But a GAL and caseworker could have 50 cases at any given time. The CASA is unique because he or she is focused only on the one case.
“A CASA is an official designee of the court and as such is part of the whole team that represents the family in the court. The CASA provides a written report of what they’ve seen and heard, the status of the child, any recommendations they might have. During the hearing, the judge goes around the room and gets recommendations from the guardian ad litem, parents’ attorneys and the CASA.”
Hoback has had two cases. Her first case was a family of three children living with their mother but surrounded by issues of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse. “As you talk to the kids, you get a feel for what’s going on,” she said. “The sixteen-year-old shared a lot about issues at school, health issues, her goals and dreams. Her brother was eight and had many mental issues; he just needed someone to be positive and supportive around him.
“CASAs might present things to the court that the GAL doesn’t know about, for instance, asking for money from the court to go to the beauty salon to have a teen’s hair done. That might not seem necessary, but it sure is something that could light up a teenager’s life.”
“In some cases, children remain in the home as the case progresses,” said Stewart, “and some children are removed from the home and placed in foster care. If a child is removed from his home, Denver’s Department of Human Services works very hard to place him with a family member, in a kinship home. Some kids are placed in group homes; it just depends on circumstances and availability.
“The court doesn’t want children languishing in a temporary home. The goal of the court is to find a permanent, safe home for the child as quickly as possible. The ideal goal is to return the child to her family.”
Hoback’s second case involves a five-year-old Navajo girl who falls under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). “She has kinship placement,” Hoback said. “She’s living with her grandmother right now.” The tribe has jurisdiction in this case and must be kept in the loop of all court proceedings.
“ICWA provides guidance to states regarding the handling of child abuse and neglect and adoption cases involving Native children, and sets minimum standards for the handling of these cases,” according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs website: https://goo.gl/UUkRUj.
“What the child gets from my visits is stability,” said Hoback. “She has had three different GALs. She doesn’t verbalize very well, but her mood picks up when we talk. We talk about who her friends are, what she did this weekend; and we practice numbers and talk about how to do fun things on the playground.”
CASA volunteers undergo about 40 hours of initial training over a six-week period, meeting once a week. “Our volunteers are highly trained,” Stewart said. A training session is currently underway and five more will be presented next year, starting January 21.
The training emphasizes the obligation of being the voice of the child in court; of having compassion and an understanding of cultural differences; and understanding the roles of all players on the team. The training gives volunteers real-life scenarios for decision-making. “Not every case is cut and dried,” Stewart said. “There will be things that come up that a CASA hasn’t faced before. The responsibility of the staff is to give CASAs the tools they need to be successful in a case.
“Once the CASA is assigned a case, the minimal expectation is that they meet with the child at least twice a month. We encourage them to do things beyond that, to meet with teachers, meet with other team members and become really involved with the case.
“We have between 100 and 150 active CASAs at any one time. The Department of Human Services says that at any given time about 1000 kids are in the Denver Court System under abuse and neglect cases. 438 children received CASA services in 2015. Our goal is to serve every kid who needs a CASA, and that would be about 1000 by the year 2020.”
The idea for CASA started in 1977, when Seattle Superior Court judge David Soukup believed that children needed more support as they moved through the dependency and neglect system. He also felt that someone had to speak directly for them during the process. Since then, the idea of a CASA has expanded into 49 states [watch this short YouTube video from Judge Soukup: denvercasa.org/about-us/.
CASA started 21 years ago in Denver. Stewart says Denver residents are fortunate because Denver judges and magistrates assigned to the juvenile court are not moved around. In other judicial systems, judges can be moved every couple of years between different courts. “Our judges have gotten to know the CASAs,” she said. “They respect the organization, they come to our events and they swear in our CASAs after training sessions.
“CASAs need to understand the importance of being part of the whole team,” Stewart said. “They need to be patient and willing to work within the system. They should be empathetic and have very open eyes to understand cultural and socio-economic differences.”
Hoback said, “One of the basic requirements for success is to be self-aware. CASA training emphasizes being aware of your biases, which may be so hidden in ourselves that we don’t know they exist. It’s necessary to be open to anyone and anything. Having a heart and passion for kids is huge.
CASA receives most of its funding through philanthropic dollars. It gets some funding from the state legislature. “We are a line item in the state budget and have to be approved every couple of years,” Stewart said. “That money is divided between the 16 CASA programs in Colorado. We get some grants from the state and federal Office of Victims Assistance. The rest of the funding comes from individual donors, corporate sponsors and family foundations.”
To volunteer, donate or learn more about CASA, call 303-832-4592 or visit denvercasa.org.
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