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The Richmond area’s oldest Court Appointed Special Advocate program turns 25 this year.
The CASA concept dates back further. In 1977, a Seattle judge developed the idea of trained volunteers providing independent advocacy for children involved in the domestic court process.
The program spread throughout the country since then, arriving in Hanover in 1988 through the efforts of Marilyn Blake, Nina Peace and Dean Lewis, then the County volunteer coordinator, Ashland district supervisor, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge, respectively.
“It’s a judge’s program, and so we recruit and train volunteers to advocate in court on behalf of abused and neglected children, so there has to be some sort of allegation of abuse and neglect having occurred,” Hanover CASA coordinator Melanie Baker said.
CASA is not a mentorship program. It’s a means of presenting a child’s best interests to the court without bias, to help the judge make a better decision.
Volunteers undergo an extensive background check and intensive training process. They initially receive 40 hours of training before they can take on a case, and they participate in an additional 12 hours of training annually for the duration of their service.
Training topics include the court system, how to write a court report, child development, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health.
“Sometimes people decide throughout the process, ‘Hey, this isn’t really what I anticipated,’ and that’s okay, because we want to make sure that people are fully informed,” Baker said.
Once the volunteers complete their training, a judge swears them in. Baker conducts an exit interview to learn about their preferences—what age groups are they comfortable with, how far are they willing to travel, etc.
“This is their volunteer experience. They’re donating their time to advocate for children, and so I want to make it the most positive experience that it can be,” Baker said.
The Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services investigate whether abuse or neglect has actually occurred. The CASA volunteer gathers information about the child’s circumstances.
A CASA volunteer is assigned to one case at a time. There may be multiple children involved in that single situation, however, thereby increasing the volunteer’s workload.
Volunteers interview parents, other relatives, and anyone else close to the child or children, such as teachers, counselors, or therapists, if applicable. Volunteers also have access to school and medical records.
They develop a report from those interviews and make fact-based recommendations to the judge, weighing in on matters of custody and visitation. The volunteers are not allowed to draw their own conclusions.
“Our goal is to move that child home to be with family, if at all possible, because our chief goal is to have a safe, permanent home for all children. Sometimes, unfortunately, that doesn’t work out,” Baker said.
“I don’t think it’s for everybody,” said Ingrid Kampinga, who has been a CASA volunteer since late 2009. “I believe that you have to have a little bit of thick skin and be able to control your reactions, because you do sometimes hear things and see things that are somewhat traumatic.”
She said CASA volunteers need to remain detached. They can’t bring home any emotional baggage from their cases, especially since they’re not allowed to share the information with anyone.
“You cannot get personally involved. Remain objective. … We are the child’s voice. Some children can’t be heard, and that’s what we do. We bring their needs to the table for the judge to see,” Kampinga said.
Kathy Henderson, who has been volunteering since 2008, said, “Oftentimes the adults involved expect us to [take sides], but it is important that we don’t do that, for the benefit of the child. … Your heart goes out to that child, so it is kind of hard to have a degree of detachment.”
“There’s a need in the community,” said Leslie Munson, a volunteer since late 2011.
Munson said the volunteer aspect of CASA appeals to families and judges.
“They’re interested that you have no financial stake in this. You’re there because you care about the child, solely,” Munson said.
Hanover has 15 active CASA volunteers at the moment, as well as others on inactive status.
The time commitment varies from case to case. Some volunteers might only need to contribute five to 10 hours a month to the program, while others might have to travel a few hours to meet with a child.
“It’s a pretty large commitment, and that’s what’s always so amazing to me is that these [volunteers], they have their own lives, and we have people who work full-time, who have their own families, and this is what they’re doing in their spare time,” Baker said.
Hanover County will recognize CASA’s anniversary during its annual Spirit of Volunteerism celebration at Hanover High School on Tuesday, May 7. The event begins at 7 p.m.
The Hanover Department of Community Resources administers the local CASA program, which also serves Caroline County. The Va. Department of Criminal Justice Services regulates the program.
Anyone interested in becoming a CASA volunteer should contact Melanie Baker at (804) 365-4296 for an application.