BERLIN — Worcester County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) program is running at full tilt and, without new volunteers, may soon become overloaded.
With 40 volunteers, 38 of which are assigned with two on hiatus, CASA is at maximum capacity and more children are expected to become eligible for advocacy in the next few months.
“We’d have to put kids on a waiting list,” said Program Director Brigitte Saulsbury on what may happen if more volunteers are not trained soon.
Since coming to Worcester in 2002, CASA has helped nearly 200 children through the court process and foster system. Whenever it is determined that a child is unable to live at home because of safety issues, he or she is put into what the CASA website calls “a court and child welfare maze.”
To advocate for them during that time, CASA supplies each child with a volunteer to coach, support and speak for them in court. Each volunteer only handles one child at a time, explained Saulsbury, to allow more focus on individual cases.
Saulsbury added that anyone can be a CASA volunteer. No prior legal experience is necessary.
“They just have to care for children … It doesn’t matter what their background is,” she said.
Once volunteers apply, they will have to go through an interview process and personal history examination. If they pass that, CASA will provide all of the training needed to advocate for unplaced children in court.
“We cover all the bases,” said Saulsbury.
To make an informed recommendation to the court, a CASA volunteer will need to know the child personally and the child’s family well. Outside of court, many volunteers continue to help their child and often remain in contact on an unofficial basis after the court has made its decision, just to stay abreast.
“They are advocating for these kids all the time,” said Saulsbury. “Most of our volunteers stay in touch with the family and the kids.”
According to Saulsbury, being a volunteer for CASA means filling an important role in the community. Providing one-on-one advocacy and support for a child is vital during transitional periods for youth, she said. While a child may see multiple counselors, judges or therapists after being removed from their home, they will always have the same CASA advocate.
“That’s what we strive to do,” Saulsbury said. “We want to be that one consistency in their lives.”
She pointed out that CASA is more than just an advocacy group. The recommendations made by volunteers “are highly respected in the court,” and help the judge decide where a child ultimately ends up.
Though CASA has agencies in many places and is recognized nationally, Saulsbury contends that the Worcester branch had to earn the respect it currently enjoys from the court system.
“There were some growing pains at first,” she said.
The end goal of CASA is to “reunify” a child with its family whenever possible. When that doesn’t happen, a child is usually placed into the foster system in Worcester, though on rare occasions a child will be placed outside the county and sometimes even across the Bay Bridge. The entire process can be a lot for children to take in, said Saulsbury, and having a volunteer to watch over them lifts a lot of the burden.
If more volunteers don’t start signing up soon, however, there won’t be enough to deal with an expected influx of new cases this winter and spring.
For more information on CASA or to learn how to become a volunteer, visit http://www.gowoyo.org/court-appointed-special-advocate or contact Saulsbury at [email protected]
Besides volunteering, Worcester residents can help CASA by attending a charity Bloody Mary Contest at the Sunset Grille from noon-4 p.m. on Dec. 18. A $10 donation offers unlimited Bloody Mary tastings, tailgate food, and happy hour prices at the bar with all proceeds to benefit CASA and Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services.