CASA can be child's best friend

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

"Judge" and "case worker" are familiar terms to most people, but not CASA.

A CASA is a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer trained by the state Office of Public Advocacy to get an independent perspective on the best interests of abused and neglected children and then represent them in court.

CASAs are expected to read all documents in a case and may recommend parenting classes for parents or therapy for children. Some take it on themselves to trace

missing fathers who should be paying support or making visits.

"You dig through the piles of paper and interview people and try to figure out what is best for the child. One dad said, 'Oh, you are the detective for my son,'" said CASA Lynnette Ensor.

The Juneau CASA program has nine volunteers and a volunteer coordinator, Laura Minne.

"Once a CASA is assigned to a case, he or she stays with it until it ends, which may be a year or several years. Continuity is part of the value of the system because the child's life is in such upheaval, and he feels so displaced. To have one person you can count on is tremendous," Minne said.

"The CASA works only in child-protection cases, not in child-custody cases," said attorney Janine Reep, who supervises the program. "When kids are placed in the custody of the Division of Family and Youth Services, then a CASA is appointed."

Dorothea "Dee" Owens, a teacher with 39 years classroom experience, some at Juneau's Johnson Youth Center, looks at the job with an educator's eye. "You try to analyze the kids' defenses and try to get them to trust." Her current assignment is a teen-age girl she is coaching in budgeting. "She needs to build a base of having a resource under her control," Owens said.

"Why can't we do it this way?" is one question the CASA excels at, cutting through precedent and legal red tape. "Not being in the legal system gives you an empathy for the parents whose children are being taken away. If the legal system is confusing to me, what must it be for them?" asked Ensor, a teacher.

CASA Bob Wild was a probation officer from 1977-95. He finds CASA duties a relief from the full caseload he carried.

"It seems like an opportunity to do something right, one case at a time," he said. "What attracted me is that it is designed for the average person. The focus is on the best interests of the child."

On one hand, the fact that a CASA is an independent party, a volunteer, "increases credibility." On the other hand, it mystifies; "people want to know who's paying you," Wild said.

Becky Weimer, 29, the mother of children aged 6 and 8, was one of Juneau's first CASA volunteers. "CASAs are asked to check in with their charges twice a month. I call the foster parents, see what's going on and what's a good time to come over. I might also go to day care, hang out and see what the kids are doing," Weimer said.

In court, CASAs are expected to share impressions and make recommendations. "Judges rely on CASAs to respond to any of the needs of the children that are not being met," Reep said.

The CASA concept is national, but Juneau's program is just 2 years old. "Slowly we are building," said Reep, who also supervises guardians ad litem, court-appointed custodians who watch over the affairs of minors in unsettled custody situations. GALs are paid; unpaid CASAs are appointed to a small number of their cases.

More CASAs are needed. With more, it would be possible to make better matches between volunteers and children in need. "We try to match people who want infants with infants, and those who want teens or multiple siblings," Reep said.

The local CASA office holds training once a year. Each volunteer receives 32 hours of training plus 12 hours of continuing education each succeeding year.

To inquire about CASA training, call Reep at 465-4162 or Minne at 465-2268.

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