Raina poked her head out from under the covers and slowly opened her eyes to look around the strange motel room. Her younger sisters were sleeping next to her but her mother was gone—again. Karin ButlerAlthough she was only 5 she knew what could happen. She didn’t know whether to be more afraid of her mother being gone in the middle of the night or of her coming back and acting all weird and waking everyone up because she couldn’t sleep. Even worse sometimes her mother wasn’t alone. She would bring back another “uncle” who Raina had learned to keep herself and her sisters away from.

A beating by a parent is devastating at any age but could have been fatal for 1-year-old Jackson. Fortunately, it wasn’t and he was rescued and put into a foster home.

While their beginnings were traumatic the stories of Raina and Jackson both have happy endings. After many months in a foster home and then being returned to their mother who was in treatment for drug abuse, Raina and her siblings found themselves homeless again. This time though, mom acknowledged her inability to provide a safe and stable home for her children. Their father was called and almost faster than humanly possible he arrived to pick up his children and provide the home for them that he had prepared months in advance in hope of their arrival.

Jackson’s parents were unable to overcome their drug problems and Jackson was adopted by a stable married couple who genuinely loved and wanted him.

But how did these happy endings come about when so many other children have no hope for a normal life in a happy home?

Raina, her siblings and Jackson had a volunteer court appointed special advocate or CASA.

A CASA is appointed by the court to advocate and look out for the best interests of the child or children involved in a Department of Human Services neglect and/or abuse case.

In Raina’s case her CASA had watched the progress of both parents and consistently argued for the children going to their father since their mother had not shown she could maintain safety and stability for her children. On the other hand, the father had done everything DHS required of him. However, the CASA was overruled in court time and time again. But when the mother decided she had had enough, a DHS supervisor called the CASA and asked if the CASA knew any reason why the children shouldn’t go with their father. The CASA happily replied “No” and the father was called and told he could come and get his children. If those children had not had a CASA, the father might never have been given the opportunity to care for his children.

Jackson had a CASA who constantly advocated for his needs. The CASA was able to help in the process of selecting an adoptive family and was in court when the adoption took place.

I talked with another longtime CASA volunteer, and when she reads stories about neglect or abuse of children in DHS custody, she can tell who doesn’t have a CASA. The ones with CASAs are not left in a bad situation. She said she knows the work she and other CASAs do, and while there may not be a fairy tale ending in every case, the CASA doesn’t give up until he or she can be at least satisfied with the result.

CASAs investigate everything and have the authorization to talk with parents, doctors, counselors, teachers, attorneys, etc., to be able to understand what the child needs and who they should live with. Normally, CASAs also have the ability to talk with service providers for the parents, so they know if they are progressing and will be able to parent the child in the future.

CASAs focus on the child and his or her needs (not the needs of the parents) and usually only have one case at a time. Other people involved in a case (such as attorneys or DHS workers) have many such cases and may be too busy to give the attention to a child that he or she needs.

CASAs have been called the “eyes and ears” of the court, but CASAs are more than that. They are the “heart” of the court. Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Michael Wetzel said he can definitely tell the difference when a CASA is on a case and when there isn’t one:

“The CASA brings the child’s wants, needs, and viewpoints front and center to the proceedings. The CASA, through their extensive contacts with the child and his or her environment, is able to identify issues and concerns relating to the child that would not otherwise be recognized.”

Wetzel also said that while judges rely on the written reports that CASAs provide, they are always happy to hear what a CASA has to say. He admits some CASAs may be intimidated by the court process and said judges don’t expect extended oral presentations. However, once a CASA has some experience in court, he said, “I think they generally find that presenting in juvenile court feels more like talking to people you know around a coffee table than the formal court room settings seen on TV.”

Unfortunately, every child who needs a CASA doesn’t have one. CASAs are all volunteers. A lot of people believe they could never be a CASA, because they would get too emotionally involved or the children’s stories would overwhelm them. Vigileos said in the beginning, after reading some of the cases, she would take the long way home just to cry and process what she had read. Then she would decide she can either be sad and victimized along with the child or she can do battle for him. She said the kids are so good and so brave that how can she be any less.

Child Advocates, Inc. in Oregon City is the nonprofit agency that runs the CASA program for Clackamas County.

CASA Training Manager Jennifer Rodger said, “The idea you have in your head of what being a CASA is like is really different than what you experience.” She said every person who wants to be a CASA goes to an orientation class that introduces them to what a CASA does.

If a person decides to continue, then they can either take their training classes in the daytime or a combination of evening and online classes. CASAs are well prepared for their work (which can take anywhere from a couple of hours in one month to eight to 15 in another) and always have a manager to call when they have questions about what to do or how to handle something.

Usually cases are not horrendous, said CASA’s Executive Director Robin Christian. She went on to say that CASAs are taught how to advocate for the best interests of the child and still maintain professional boundaries. She said she reminds herself that she can’t prevent what happened to the child, but she can help ongoing.

Wanting to help a child ongoing seems to be a general theme among CASAs. Bill Benedetto has been a CASA for many years. He said that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem titled “Success” has really helped him keep his focus. He pointed out the last three lines which say,

“To know even one life has breathed

easier because you have lived; 

This is to have succeeded.”

“Helping a child to have a better life beats playing golf any day,” added Benedetto.

Karin Dixon Butler is a CASA volunteer and Happy Valley resident.

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