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The county-wide program provides legal assistance and other help to local youths

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A group of court-appointed special advocates is sworn in following training recently in McMinnville.

In the 1970s a group of judges in Seattle started the first CASA program – designed to provide at-risk children with more representation in the courts. Volunteers provided legal guidance and assistance along with other services those young people needed and a local chapter of the program popped up in 1992.

Yamhill County judges got together and created their own version of the program, which now exists statewide in Oregon.

"We started with seven volunteers," Nicole Myrstol, executive director of Yamhill County CASA, said. "In 1995, we became an official nonprofit and our office is in McMinnville serving the entire county."

Children from Newberg to McMinnville to every other corner of the county have been impacted by CASA's services. Many of the affected children are under county Department of Human Services' custody and they are assigned a CASA volunteer from their very first hearing.SUBMITTED PHOTO - CASA volunteers in Yamhill County and throughout the state dedicate hundreds of hours each year to helping youths navigate the legal system.

"These kids are coming from homes where abuse or neglect has occurred," Myrstol said. "They are more often than not placed in foster care when we come in, but sometimes it's a relative or even someone they don't know. It can make things in their lives difficult and we come in to help them with legal processes."

Volunteers have 32 hours of intensive training before they can work on a case. They are asked to make a two-year commitment because that is often the length of an individual case, and the volunteers will spend time with adults in the children's lives to get a better idea of who they're working with.

"Our volunteers have done everything from helping kids get individual education plans in schools to getting counseling they need, to linking them up with insurance companies for medical needs," Myrstol said. "It goes beyond legal help and just provides these kids an adult in their life that is consistent.

"Foster homes change and caseworkers change, and attorneys can change as well in some cases. Often the CASA is the person who has been there since the beginning and holds all of the history of the case, knowing it from the start."

Myrstol became a volunteer in 2011 after studying sociology in college. While working a job in the food service industry, she started volunteering for CASA in Washington County and was assigned to a case with a teenage girl.

It was that case that sparked Myrstol's passion and interest in the work and she became involved in the Yamhill County organization in 2013 before becoming its executive director in 2018.

CASA is a state-mandated service, but only 19 percent of its funding comes from the state, Myrstol said. A bill in the Legislature would increase CASA funding throughout Oregon, which Myrstol said would be crucial to their work locally.

"Funding would help us all recruit and train more volunteers," she said. "We are currently serving 60 percent of kids in foster care in Yamhill County. The remaining 40 percent could all use CASA and we are often monitoring those kids as well."

For more information or to apply for a volunteer position at the local chapter of CASA, visit www.yccasa.org. Their office is based in McMinnville and the next training class is scheduled for April 6.


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