CASA volunteers help professionals protect children who are in danger
By Janet Rowland
Our most fundamental obligation as a civil society is to protect the most vulnerable among us — the children. Yet for some children, the very people who should protect them are the ones who harm them — their parents.
At any given time in Mesa County, approximately 350 children live in foster care. But there are many other children in desperate situations:
✔ A medically fragile infant born four months premature, with meth in her system.
✔ A four-month-old who is losing weight at a rate that is alarming to the doctor. He simply isn’t eating enough. The baby is very lethargic and it’s determined that the reason he isn’t eating is because he’s being exposed to secondhand smoke. Marijuana smoke.
✔ A nine-month-old who had been living in a filthy hotel shared with an assortment of adults, who hasn’t had a bath or had her clothes changed in over a week. She has severe diaper rash that is bleeding, and is slapped for crying too much. The family is evicted from the hotel for lack of payment and now live out of their car.
✔ A toddler put to bed and then left home alone while her parents spend hours at a local bar. She wakes up alone and frightened, goes outside without shoes or a coat, searching for her mom.
✔ A second grader suffers brain damage and is wheelchair-bound after a severe beating by his father. His fourth-grade brother is wracked with guilt because he watched the whole thing and couldn’t do anything to stop it.
✔ A four-year-old walks up and down the streets looking for a neighbor who will give him something to eat, because his mom is passed out at home and he can’t wake her.
✔ Another four-year-old feeds his younger sister chocolate syrup for dinner, because it’s all he can find to eat in the house.
✔ A young teen girl, raped by her stepdad for several years, learns she is pregnant.
These kinds of situations occur right here in Mesa County.
Thankfully, there are many caring adults who step in to ensure our children are protected — law enforcement officers, social workers, attorneys, judges and foster parents, just to name a few.
But the system isn’t without its challenges. Social workers juggle continuously increasing caseloads, with an ever-growing number of federal and state regulations.
With a limited number of foster parents, children are often placed in homes far from their current neighborhoods, forcing them to change schools, leaving their friends and familiar surroundings behind. Siblings are often separated when one foster family can’t accommodate a large family with many children.
The solution has many pieces. One of those pieces was developed by a Seattle judge more than 30 years ago. It’s called court-appointed special advocates, or CASA. Through the program, average citizens with special training and support are appointed by the courts to be the voice of the child. A caring adult, volunteering his or her time, meets with the child, extended family members, teachers and other professionals involved in the child’s life, in order to give a well-rounded perspective to the court about the best interest of the child.
It’s a model program with a proven track record of better outcomes for kids. Decades of research shows that the kids who have a CASA volunteer spend less time in foster care and more quickly settle into a permanent home. Kids with a CASA volunteer typically do better in school and are socially better adjusted.
While 125 children in Mesa County have a CASA advocate assigned to them, more than 120 children are on a waiting list. Waiting for a CASA. Waiting for a voice in court. But you can change that. You can be the person who makes the difference in a child’s life. For more information go to http://www.casamc.org.
Janet Rowland is the executive director of CASA of Mesa County. She is a former Mesa County commissioner.