For children in the foster care system, volunteers from the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program are often the only constant in an ever-changing environment.
CASA volunteers are individuals trained to advocate for children who are in the Juvenile Court system due to abuse, neglect or dependency. Once trained, each volunteer is assigned a case. Through visits with and studying the history of their assigned child, they come to understand the child's specific concerns and needs.
With information gathered from everyone in the child’s life–parents, relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers, and others–volunteers help Juvenile Court judges know what the children need and what permanent homes are most suitable for their well-being.
Ashland Parenting Plus has operated the CASA program in Ashland County since 2017, and this year, they will launch a much-needed CASA program for Knox County as well.
While Ashland’s CASA program has made a huge impact in the lives of many local children since it began, the need for new volunteers is urgent for both Ashland and Knox Counties.
“The long-term goal would be for every child to have one,” Ashland Parenting Plus’ CASA Outreach Volunteer Coordinator Jenny Keesee said. “There is definitely a need–there is always a need.”
With nearly 175 Ashland County children in foster care and only around 20 CASA volunteers currently available, the demand for volunteers is dire. Since each volunteer is usually assigned one child in order to provide the best advocacy in each specific case, many children remain without an advocate.
In Knox County, there were 152 abuse/neglect/dependency cases filed last year alone. The county is seeking to train volunteers now so they will be ready to work with these children right away when the program launches later this year.
“(CASA volunteers) have a passion for helping children and families. The more people like this we have helping and interacting with these children and families, the better the outcomes should be,” Knox County Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon said.
Applying to volunteer with a local CASA program is nationally recognized as one of the best and most accessible ways to help children in the foster care system, regardless of prior experience. AdoptUSKids, a national project dedicated to supporting child welfare systems, places it at the top of their list for ways to help these children.
While in-person volunteer training courses may have been difficult to squeeze in between other responsibilities in the past, the training is currently remote due to pandemic restrictions, making it fully accessible for anyone seeking to make a lasting difference in these childrens’ lives.
Online courses and homework for volunteers are completed independently, and Zoom meetings with classmates and supervisors help to bring the material to life.
Keesee, who has volunteered with CASA since 2017–prior to joining the staff at Ashland Parenting Plus–shared how fulfilling the experience has been for her personally. “I have been with the same child for over three years now. Just watching how she's been able to grow, and all of the opportunities that have come her way, has been nice to be a part of.”
“There have been a lot of changes, some directly related to foster care. She’s changed schools and adjusted really well to that, and gone through several different therapists–things that are out of her control. I've been the one constant that's been there since the beginning of her case. I’ve been able to follow through and help the people that help her. I've been the person who has been able to fit the pieces together and keep everybody on the same page.”
After training, the number of volunteer hours varies case-to-case, but it typically averages out to just a couple of hours each week. The program asks that CASA volunteers give an average of 10 hours each month.
In December, a group of eight new volunteers completed CASA training and were sworn in by the judge. One of these was Jennifer Wininger, who was just assigned her first case.
“I married a little bit later than a lot of people, when I was 40. Now I'm 44,” Wininger said. “I feel like I have a lot of energy and a lot of love, but I probably won't have children of my own, so this is a way for me to help take care of children in the community who maybe need somebody in the interim time while their moms and dads are healing up.”
A Facebook advertisement for CASA volunteers caught Wininger’s attention initially. The next day, she discovered a card in the mailbox with detailed information about how to get involved. She knew right then it was something she wanted to pursue and immediately called to sign up.
Virtual training went smoothly for Wininger. She particularly appreciated the Zoom meetings where they talked through potential cases, many of which were not cut-and-dry. These generated class discussions about important decisions volunteers might need to make and how their contribution could really benefit the children for a lifetime.
For community members currently considering applying to volunteer, Wininger urged them to do so. “Honestly, if you can take the course from the comfort of your own home, it’s more convenient than having to drive to the building and take the classes every time,” she said.
“A lot of people don't feel like they're in a position where they can foster or don't have the funds to adopt, but they could definitely go and check up on a child and be their friend.”
Ashland Parenting Plus is currently accepting applications to become a CASA volunteer in both Ashland and Knox Counties. To fill out an application or learn more about the process, click here.