Advocating for Children: North Idaho CASA Program

North Idaho CASA

By KATHLEEN MULROY

If you live in North Idaho and have considered volunteering to help at-risk children, you might want to consider participating in the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. CASA—the only program of its kind in the United States—supports trained volunteer Advocates for children up to 18 who are victims of abuse and neglect.

North Idaho’s First Judicial CASA program became a 501c3 nonprofit in 1993, serving 507 children in 2019 through three offices in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, and Shoshone. A juvenile court judge appointed 147 active CASAS/GALs (Guardian ad Litems) volunteers to assist those children.

The program’s vision is to appoint a CASA/GAL to every child who is a victim of abuse or neglect in the five northern counties under the purview of the Child Protective Act. Advocates “advocate for and represent the best interests of the child for the entirety of their child protection case,” according to the North Idaho CASA website.

Usually, Idaho volunteers are not assigned to children older than 12 and are assigned no more than two cases at a time. They investigate child protection cases and act as a communications link between the various and complicated pieces of the child welfare system.

Advocates gather pertinent information about the cases, meeting with the child’s parents or guardians and other family members as well as with social workers, school officials, and healthcare professionals—all of the people who are involved in the child’s life.

They then represent the child’s best interest in court by giving the judge an informed, objective perspective and making recommendations for the child.

According to Margaret Williams, CASA attorney for Bonner County, judges rely heavily on CASA Advocates’ testimony in any given case.

“An Advocate carries a lot of weight, because they’re an independent, third voice that has the objective of answering one question …” said Williams. “What’s in the child’s best interest?”

Most important, CASAS/GALs spend an average of 15 to 20 hours a month with a child. This one-on-one interaction can provide a source of stability and trust during complex legal proceedings. Advocates may offer explanations of the events occurring and the role of all the involved parties.

CASAs/GALs encourage children to express their own opinions, feelings, and hopes, while remaining an objective observer as Advocates.

Throughout the investigation into any child’s situation, Advocates identify needs and ensure they receive necessary services. These services range from psychological treatment to educational assistance to parent/family education.

Becoming a CASA/GAL Volunteer

North Idaho CASA Director of Development Kristin Ludwig said, “We like to say that our Advocates are ordinary people who become extraordinary through advocacy. Anyone who loves children and wants to fight for child victims can be an Advocate.”

In addition to having a passion for helping child victims, CASA/GAL volunteers must be 21 years or older and able to make a minimum two-year commitment to the program. They need to be good communicators and able to be objective, responsible, committed, and persistent. They  must understand the important role they have in a child’s life.

Volunteers must successfully complete a thorough screening and background check then complete a comprehensive 30-hour pre-service training.

Trainees learn about the child welfare system, how to work with children involved in the system, cultural competence, court report writing, and effective advocacy techniques. Social service professionals, and judges share with the CASA/GAL staff.

Once trained and assigned to a case, volunteers can choose from a range of options to satisfy the 12 hours of required annual continuing education.

Research studies have shown that the introduction of just one caring adult in the life of an abused child can change the course of that child’s life forever. A court appointed volunteer Advocate makes a profound and positive difference. ISI

North Idaho CASA’s website is www.northidahocasa.org. For information about becoming a CASA/GAL, go to https://www.northidahocasa.org/trainings.html