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Advocates for foster youth transition to digital formats for fundraising, interaction with children.

FILE PHOTO - CASA of Clackamas CountyVolunteers and professional staff with the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Clackamas County are not letting the COVID-19 pandemic stop them from championing the rights and needs of local foster youth.

In the three months since the coronavirus outbreak changed the way we all do business, CASA of Clackamas County has also pivoted to a new normal where digital interactions allow volunteer advocates and organizational staff to continue their vital work. The group, based near the Clackamas County Courthouse in Oregon City, is also getting creative with how they fundraise after the state's social distancing requirements forced the cancelation of their biggest event of the year, which was scheduled for April.

Continuing to support volunteers in their work advocating for kids, while also bringing in every dollar they can, is more critical than ever, according to Executive Director Robin Christian. PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA CLACKAMAS COUNTY - ROBIN CHRISTIAN

According to Christian, despite the declining number of children entering foster care in Clackamas County since the outbreak of COVID-19 took hold in March, she and her colleagues are expecting a major spike in the number of abuse reports when the economy begins opening up more and kids head back to school.

"The reason is that children are not seeing mandatory reporters, teachers and doctors, or other people in the community who might be alerted to what's going on with them," Christian said.

Court-appointed special advocates are citizen volunteers who come from a number of backgrounds such as nursing, education, social work and the local legal community. Volunteers also include retirees, stay-at-home parents, people from diverse walks of life and backgrounds.

They receive training to be able to make independent assessments that help caseworkers connect children to services that could be beneficial to foster youth living full and happy lives, as well as helping them find permanency with a return to their biological parents or in a new home more quickly.

These advocates — known as "CASAs" — help provide a window into the lives of local foster youth where oftentimes caseworkers cannot due to extremely high caseloads across Oregon. While a social worker might have between 20 and 30 cases at one time, special advocates are only assigned a single case at a time.

Their primary responsibility is to gather information and make recommendations to the judge about what a child needs. Sometimes they agree with a caseworker's assessment, sometimes they bring a fresh perspective and disagree with the approach being taken. Either way, the entire point is to get the best possible outcome for each child.

Thanks to the organization's foresight over the past few years in migrating its paperwork to electronic formats, a process completed about five months ago, the transition to virtual meetings and digital workflow was fairly seamless, said Shari Fromm, CASA program director.

According to Fromm, foster kids are continuing to meet with advocates virtually on a regular basis. Volunteers are also able to access court documents and hearings digitally as well. There has been a learning curve for some to transition into this new digital era, she said, but CASA Clackamas County staff have been committed to helping volunteers with the transition.

Some volunteers are even putting personal touches on their connections with foster youth by sending them little puzzles using snail-mail — a novel idea for many children — for kids to figure out ahead of their virtual meetings with their CASA. PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA CLACKAMAS COUNTY - SHARI FROMM

"I feel like we've been able to do everything 100% and we haven't missed a beat," Fromm said.

CASA of Clackamas County has about 158 volunteers trained and working to independently review local foster youth cases. They serve 259 of the 363 children currently in foster care from 159 different families in Clackamas County.

The organization is preparing to swear in 14 more volunteers in the coming weeks who recently completed 32 hours of classroom education and 5.5 hours of courtroom training. All of this was able to be done virtually as well, according to Fromm.

Unfortunately though, according to Christian, the organization is nearing its caseload limit, and time constraints on the workload of professional staff will preclude them from supporting more than their soon-to-be 172 volunteers for the time being.

Further throwing a wrench to the group's plan is their missed fundraising event, their "Spring Gala" which was set to take place on April 25 at the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn.

"There's generally close to 180 to 200 people in the room, and tables start at $1,000," Christian said. "We usually raise about $125,000, or about 16% of our budget."

The group couldn't stand to take that large of a hit when the funding of such important work was on the line. Instead, this year CASA of Clackamas County hosted a fundraising drive throughout May, which is also National Foster Awareness Month.

An online silent-auction will also be held to raise funds for the nonprofit between Thursday, June 25, and Saturday, June 27. Items include gift certificates to local restaurants, hotel stay packages and more.

Thankfully, the nonprofit's 8th annual golf tournament set for Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn is still on. Interested participants can find out more about how to enter the tournament, participate in the silent auction or make a donation on the group's website. While CASA of Clackamas County is an affiliate of the larger statewide and national CASA organizations, their financial situation is entirely dependent on their own fundraising.

Both Fromm and Christian are concerned about their ability to keep up with the demand for special advocate training and the number of cases that their organization can handle at any given time, but that's not stopping them from pushing forward anyway.

"As Clackamas County begins to open up we're going to see an exponential increase of children coming into foster care," Christian said. "We know that kids with CASAs have better educational outcomes, better emotional outcomes, and they get to permanency more quickly. It's the benefit of one consistent adult in their life whereas their caseworker, their foster home and their school might change."

For more information about the organization, visit its website.

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