CASA volunteers perform noble duty
You’re young, scared and feeling totally alone. Home life was never good, but it was the only life you had ever known. Now you’re a dependent of the court, and each day holds an uncertain future.
El Dorado County has 156 children in its care. These dependents of the court are sometimes caught between feuding parents, or are victims of neglect and abuse. Social workers carry heavy caseloads, and in reality cannot meet the needs of every child. In a din of competing voices and interests, one person recognized that children needed to have a say in their future.
A Seattle judge in 1977 started the Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA program. South Lake Tahoe has 32 volunteers acting as unbiased, independent voices for 60 children in the courts.
Judy Cefalu, 61, is one of those voices.
“I worked with lots of different programs, from girls’ softball to candy stripers,” Cefalu said. “CASA is really the best thing I have ever done. The challenges were great, but the results were absolutely fantastic. These children are in need. We are there just for them and they know it.”
CASA volunteers undergo 30 hours of training, take an oath of confidentiality, and are assigned to cases by judges. They conduct an independent investigation of the case by interviewing teachers, counselors, foster and birth parents, social workers, and by spending time with the children. Attorney Lori London said CASA volunteers bring (an informal) common-sense view to the cases they work.
“Attorneys and social workers, we are all advocates. We all want to do what is best for the children, but we all have sides to represent,” London said. “I don’t always agree with the CASA workers, but I think they are wonderful. They are there solely for the interests of the child. A CASA worker focuses specifically on the child and doesn’t really have to consider the competing interests.
“I get much more of a feel of a child’s connection with the parents. They can help the court decide how much time the child should be spending with parents. And they help supervise visits lots of the time,” she added. “Social services has only so many resources and might only be able to supervise a half-hour visit, where the CASA worker can spend several hours.”
Case manager Julie Henry said there is always a need for more volunteers.
“The judges have said they would love to have a CASA for every case, and would love to have more for family law cases as well. It’s just not possible right now,” she said.
Commitment time for volunteers ranges, but averages about 10 to 12 hours a month, Henry estimated. According to research funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the time volunteers give makes a difference through fewer placement changes and less time spent in out-of-home care. Children with a CASA worker tend to move through the system faster and with better results, Henry said.
“The most important part of what I did was build or rebuild self-esteem in these children,” Cefalu said. “You just listen, and when they ask for help you give it to them.”
Court-Appointed Advocacy Training (CASA)
Where: Lake Tahoe Community College
When: Nov. 1 through Dec. 7
Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
For more information call (530) 573-3072
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