CASA seeking local volunteers
There is an unmet need in Edgar County.
Children caught in abuse and neglect situations often find themselves enmeshed in a court system that is beyond their comprehension while opposing sides of adults try to resolve a legal issue. Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) is expanding the Vermilion County operation into Edgar County and needs adult volunteers to provide a voice for those children and advocate for what each child may want or need.
“We currently have a Vermilion County woman working on one case in Edgar County,” said Lauren Zitkus, an advocate counselor in Danville. “We have about 20 cases in Edgar County that could use CASA immediately.”
Zitkus explained the courts normally appoint CASA on a case-by-case situation, but the Edgar County Circuit Court decreed in January 2017 CASA is automatically involved in all cases involving abused or neglected children or when a child goes into foster care
CASA volunteers do not provide legal services for the child. Attorneys appointed as guardian ad litem are responsible to the court for protecting what is legally in the best interest of the child, but attorneys are not expected to provide the social and moral support needed in many cases. The role of the CASA volunteer is creating consistent support and building a relationship with the child. Once assigned to a child, the volunteer remains dedicated to that child until the legal matter is resolved.
“There is a high turnover in social case workers,” said Zitkus. “A child might see five or six case workers during a case. The CASA volunteer is often the only consistent adult in the process with whom the child can build a relationship. The child may confide information to the CASA volunteer they won’t to the case worker.”
CASA is not a substitute for an attorney or the skills of the social worker but the volunteers are part of a team seeking the best result for the child.
“The hope is CASA remains with a child until the child is successfully returned home or adopted,” Zitkus said.
She explained volunteers are expected to meet at least monthly with the child. Such meetings most frequently occur in the foster home but they can also take place at school or at therapy.
The CASA organization prefers the volunteers attend every court session involving the child because that gives the volunteers a better understanding of what is occurring. An advocate counselor like Zitkus, who has more expertise with the workings of the court, also accompanies the volunteer to hearings.
Another responsibility of the volunteer is writing reports, again with the assistance of an advocate counselor, detailing how the child is coping with the situation, concerns the child has and what outcomes the child desires.
Zitkus said CASA volunteers are all different and no special background or education is needed. The only requirements are the volunteer be at least 21 and complete and intensive 30-hour training program. All prospective volunteers are subject to a CASA and Illinois Department of Children and Family Services background check before starting the training program.
Near the end of the training volunteers submit to a fingerprint background check by the Illinois State Police and the FBI.
An interview process occurs before the training starts so the individual has an understanding of what is expected and what he/she is getting into. Training includes information about how the court system works and the different types of hearings; how to interview a child using the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) method; and learning about the various services available to the child in the community.
The next training session is April 22-May 10 at Danville, although Zitkus said if enough Edgar County people are interested, a training class is possible in Paris.
The first step in volunteering is online at casavermilion.org to complete the volunteer application and start the process. Anyone wanting to be a CASA volunteer needs about a month of lead time before a training session starts to get the application, interview and background checks completed in a timely manner.
CASA is hosting a fundraising event 6 p.m. March 23 at Turtle Run, 332 E. Liberty Lane, Danville. The Night at the Races event features a 6-7 p.m. happy hour with silent and live auctions. Video horse racing starts at 7 p.m. along with a 50/50 raffle. Tickets are available in advance by calling 217-446-5975 or purchased at the door the night of the event.
A former social worker, Zitkus acknowledged CASA is difficult work because it involves children in crisis. She also said it is an emotionally fulfilling experience for the right person.
“At first it is really hard, when you see what the child is going through at home, but when you see the child go home successfully or get adopted it is worthwhile,” said Zitkus. “You see the nights of no sleep and the heartache of worrying about that child were worthwhile.”
She added it is important people understand when they get involved with CASA they are volunteering to advocate and put a different perspective into the courtroom for the attorneys and the judge.
“You are definitely giving that child a voice in a case that is no fault of their own,” said Zitkus. “Every child deserves a CASA and to have their wishes told.”