This year alone, approximately 500 abused and neglected children in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties spent time in foster care. Many of them have gone, or will go through, multiple foster placements before the courts determine their final destination. Without a loving parent or family member to speak up for their best interests, their lives are in the hands of individuals who may spend less than an hour or two speaking with them before determining their futures. Fortunately, there are advocates whose sole purpose is to give a voice to children in foster care. They are the court-appointed special advocates of Central Oregon.
In an over-burdened child welfare system, it's easy for a child's needs to be overlooked. CASA of Central Oregon is a nonprofit that supports children as they make their way through the foster care and family court system. The organization's vision is for all children to be safe, treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the home of a loving family. CASA of Central Oregon's Development Director Heather McPherson says, "We work towards our vision by recruiting, training and supporting volunteers who advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the court system."
CASA volunteers spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a month—often over the course of several years—building a trusting relationship with the child they are representing. They research the child's case by gathering information from, and interviewing, the child's family, teachers, doctors, caregivers and anyone else involved in their life in order to assess what outcome is truly in their best interest. They then submit their recommendations to the judge overseeing the child's case in an effort to help him or her decide what's best.
"The CASA is the one person who sets aside special time to really listen to the child's fears, hopes, desires and dreams," explains Stephen P. Forte, Circuit Court Judge, Eleventh Judicial District. "So, where would we be without CASA? Functioning in a world where a child would not have a voice to advocate for (their) fears, hopes, desires, and dreams."
A CASA's work is unquestionably vital to a child in the child welfare system. The average child in foster care in Central Oregon stays in foster care for two years, lives in three different foster homes and may have up to four different caseworkers. A former Deschutes County foster parent insists, "I can strongly say no child in foster care should be without a CASA...not even one child."
Children with a CASA are more likely to be adopted, less likely to spend time in long-term foster care and half as likely to re-enter the foster care system. Additionally, while in the system, a child with a CASA is more likely to have their needs met with additional essential services.
Of the 500 Central Oregon children who spent time in foster care this year, 400 had their very own CASA to advocate for them. CASA of Central Oregon was assigned to every one of those children and even with more than 150 volunteer CASA advocates, not every child in foster care has their own advocate.
CASA of Central Oregon is actively looking for community members who want to become CASAs. Volunteers come from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds. Because of the nature of their work, they go through extensive criminal and child welfare background checks.
McPherson describes these vital advocates as ordinary citizens who volunteer to do extraordinary things for the children that they serve. While the position allows for flexible hours and promises to be rewarding, it can also be emotionally challenging.
Those interested in volunteering can get started by filling out an online application and attending an informational pre-training interview to learn more about what a CASA does and determine if the role is the right fit.
Once the training is completed, CASAs are appointed as an advocate by a judge. While the role may have its challenges, the impact a CASA has in a child's life is unquestionable, as Erin, a former foster child points out, "My CASA encouraged me to dream big and to never give up on my dreams. I don't know where I would have ended up without her help. She reminded me that my voice had value and should be heard."
If you are interested in lending your voice to a child living in foster care in Central Oregon the following training classes are scheduled for 2019:
• Summer 2019: Wednesdays from 5-8 pm, May 8 through July 17 (no class on July 3). High Desert ESD in Redmond (2804 SW 6th St. Redmond)
• Fall 2019: Wednesdays from 9:30-1 pm, September 18 through November 20. Rosie Bareis Sanctuary in Bend (1010 NW 14th St.)
Visit: or-central.evintosolutions.com/VolunteerApplication to fill out an online application.