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Volunteers are a voice for children in court

Cory Fisher

For some people, just going home at the end of the day can be scary.

Imagine being 10 years old, and one night after you’re in bed you hear the doorbell ring. A stranger is there to tell you that you’ll have to move somewhere else – without your parents.

Terrified, maybe even slightly relieved, you’re taken out of the only home you’ve ever known and sent to live in a strange house with people you’ve never met.

For the days to come, no one around you can tell you when or if you’ll ever go home again.

Unfortunately, this scenario and others like it are all too common for children who have suffered neglect or abuse from their parents.

Judges, attorneys, law officers, child welfare workers and counselors do the best they can to view each situation through the eyes of the children. But through no fault of their own, an epidemic of these tragic cases often leaves these professionals unable to give children the time and attention they deserve. In South Tahoe, 176 children are currently listed as dependents of the court.

According to El Dorado County Child Protective Services Supervisor Ray Eichar, South Tahoe’s eight CPS caseworkers juggle roughly 22 cases at any given time.

“Child abuse reports jumped from 844 last year to 1,279 reports this year in South Lake Tahoe alone – all of which had to be investigated,” Eichar said. “We arrange occasional visits with our ongoing cases but we can’t spend much time with the children beyond that.”

In California, 90,000 children are now in foster care as a result of neglect, abuse or abandonment – and it’s up to judges to decide their future.

With an overburdened system and parents who have been declared unfit, is there anyone looking out for these young victims?

For close to two decades, a growing network of concerned volunteers nationwide have chosen to work on behalf of these children.

Court Appointed Special Advocates, also known as CASAs, are trained volunteers who are appointed by juvenile court judges to be a voice in court for children who are caught in “the system.” A CASA usually works one-on-one with a child to provide support by conducting an independent investigation of the case.

Based on his or her findings, the volunteer will make recommendations to the judge and monitor the case until it is closed, or the child has found a safe, permanent home.

“I would absolutely hate to do proceedings without CASAs – I can’t express how much help it is to me,” said Superior Court Commissioner Melvin Beverly, who handles many of South Lake Tahoe’s juvenile cases. “They give me the best input regarding the child’s preferences. CASAs are the bridge between the court and the child. Often the lawyers and CPS workers are overloaded – CASAs typically work with only one child. We have a lot more children who need CASAs.”

CASA El Dorado began in Placerville in 1992, and now has about 29 active volunteers in South Lake Tahoe. Upon completing 30 hours of intensive training offered through Lake Tahoe Community College, volunteers each take an oath of confidentiality and wait for a judge to assign them a case.

So what’s the payback?

“It’s the kids,” said three-year volunteer Judy Cefalu. “In all the years of volunteering with children I’ve never done anything so worthwhile. I got an education about the world I never thought I’d get at my age – it opened my eyes. I learned I’m stronger than I thought I was.”

Once assigned, a CASA worker will visit regularly with the “CASA child,” and meet with the child’s teachers, counselors, foster parents, social workers and others. CASAs also attend monthly meetings with other volunteers, and are unable to discuss the specifics of their cases with those who are not directly involved or CASAs themselves.

“My relationship with the kids is a special one because they know I’m there for them and them only,” said Wendy David, who has also been a volunteer for three years. “As a volunteer it’s given me the ability to directly help children who really need it – and my voice in court has been listened to, respected and acted upon.”

According to CASA Case Manager Julie Henry, the program is having an impact on the community.

“The volunteers are absolutely making a difference as far as families are concerned,” she said. “Judges now have a much clearer picture of each child’s needs and desires – that affects his decisions regarding their future.”

Henry’s only current complaint is that there are many more cases than CASAs, with many children now on the waiting list.

“It takes a special kind of person to be a CASA,” she said. “But we rarely lose people to burn out – most stay.”

But who could possibly describe the benefits better than a CASA child?

“The most important person in my life is my CASA,” wrote a 12-year-old in a school essay. “She has taught me right from wrong and helped me through some tough times.”

The next Court-Appointed Advocacy Training course will be offered through Lake Tahoe Community College Sept. 23 to Oct. 30, two nights a week. Those interested in learning more may call the CASA South Lake Tahoe branch office at 573-3072.


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