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The CASA office in St. Helens finds advocates who can represent a child's best interests and critical needs in court.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - CASA for Kids staff and volunteers have a mission to support children at risk through legal proceedings. Pictured, left to right: Paige Diaz, teen specialist supervisor, Jacqueline Curry, supervisor volunteer, and Karin Miller, program manager.When abused or neglected children find themselves in the court system, they need an advocate, someone who can represent them and take care of their best interests and critical needs.

In Columbia, Multnomah and Washington counties, that service is provided through volunteers with CASA for Children.

CASA, which stands for Court-Appointed Special Advocate, serves children in the three counties. It has a prominent role in Columbia County, which is by far the smallest of the trio by population and has a significantly less developed legal community.

Paige Diaz, a teen specialist supervisor and recruiter with CASA, who works at the Columbia County office in St. Helens, said CASA volunteers advocate for children who are in the local Columbia County child welfare system.

Diaz said a judge can appoint a CASA volunteer to a case involving one child or siblings.

"They are able to advocate for them in the school system or in court," Diaz said. "They are a legal party of the case. They are really able to focus on that one child and family."

CASA advocates may speak with therapists, teachers, or anyone working with that child or children to best understand their needs. CASA advocates will write a report and appear at hearings to advocate what's in the best interest of the child.

"The judges are very appreciative of the work that we do," Diaz said. "We're told quite often that the judge looks at that CASA report and sees the recommendations. The judge, a lot of times, will make an order based on what the CASA is recommending."

Currently, Diaz estimates the Columbia County office of CASA serves about 110 children and has 50 active CASA volunteers helping in communities such as Clatskanie, Vernonia, St. Helens and Scappoose.

"We've really grown our program a lot out here, which is exciting," Diaz added. "These are all children that are just in our back yards."

Advocates feared that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause an increase in instances of abuse and neglect, being that many parents were at home with their kids all day, that might go unreported. While Diaz didn't speak to the exact statistics, she said CASA has started to notice a change now that most kids are back in schools full-time.

"Some of the cases that came during that time were a little more severe," Diaz said, "but I think we're seeing the trickle-down effect now that children are in front of mandatory reporters."

Diaz noted that teachers and doctors are among those who are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Kristen Lewis, legal director of CASA in Columbia County, said it may take time to find out what affect the pandemic had on child abuse cases. She noted that there was a decrease in brand-new child abuse or neglect cases during the thick of the pandemic, when public schools were in comprehensive distance learning and many families kept their time outside of the home to a minimum due to the virus.

"We don't see each and every child in the child welfare system," Lewis said. "We don't have eyes on every single child, but I think you'll find that everyone in the child welfare system is trying to figure out the story here and draw a conclusion. It may be for another year or so when we'll really be able to get an accurate picture of what the pandemic brought to families."

CASA is always looking for more volunteers.

"Now is the time we do need more volunteers," Diaz said. "We want the community to be aware of us."

Volunteer advocates need not have legal training, but there are requirements to get started.

"They are amazing," Diaz said. "We provide training for our volunteers. We also provide one-on-one support by way of a supervisor. We currently have three supervisors in Columbia County. Between the three of us, we supervise our advocates. … We support them when there are hearings."

Volunteers are required to visit the child or children they serve at least monthly and are required to write a court report for hearings.

Volunteers, who need to be 21 years of age, undergo 30 hours of training and several background checks.

"It's just a really great program and a way to be involved in the community to help a child and family during what is likely a tough time in their life," Diaz said. "We just ask for folks that want to work with kids, volunteer and help in our community."

Diaz was asked if COVID caused disruptions for CASA during the thick of the pandemic, when there were strict COVID and masking requirements in the courtroom.

"I think COVID, for most people in the world, really taught us to be flexible," Diaz said. "I think that's what we, as advocates, and what the court system had to do."

Karin Miller, CASA program manager for Columbia County, added, "COVID made it a little more difficult for our volunteers to connect with the children, because of social distancing and stuff. That has eased up, so that has really allowed the advocates to have more close contact with kids that are in care."

CASA receives funding through many sources, both public and private. The organization occasionally hosts benefit events to raise money for its operations.

"We receive some funding federally," Diaz said. "We receive funding from the state. We have private donations. We also do fundraising."

If you have a concern about of abuse or neglect, call the Oregon Child Abuse Hotline immediately at 1-855-503-7233.

If you want to volunteer, you can visit CASA's website at casahelpskids.org.

The CASA St. Helens office is located at 2514 Sykes Road. Its phone number is 503-410-5043.


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