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CASA of Marion County is looking for more advocates of children in state custody

COURTESY PHOTO: CASA OF MARION COUNTY - Woodburn resident Robert Carney (right) is pictured in this 2016 photo being sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate by Marion County Judge Lindsay Partridge.The work of Court Appointed Special Advocates was highlighted at a fundraiser lunch event Dec. 6, as was the need for more volunteers to serve the roughly 600 Marion County children currently in the state's custody.

CASA of Marion County currently has 140 CASAs who act as eyes and ears behind the scenes for judges ruling in children's cases. That's why the concept of a CASA program was started in 1977 by a Seattle judge.

"He was having to make decisions about children's lives without enough information," Shaney Starr, executive director of CASA of Marion County, said. "He thought, if I teach and train community members what I need, they can report back to me. That's how CASA was born."

The job of a judge is difficult because of the conflicting voices from the lawyers in the courtroom about what is best for the child, reflected Robert Carney, a Woodburn resident who has volunteered as a CASA since spring 2016.

"I was in court last month, and the judge listened to the mother's attorney, then he listened to the father's attorney, then he listened to the child's attorney, and they all had different perspectives," Carney said. "Then the judge said, 'OK, I've heard enough. Is the CASA in the room? What's really going on here?' ... The judge looks to the CASA because they want an objective opinion."

When a CASA is assigned to a case, they meet with the child (or children) involved as well as everyone who is in that child's life, from family members to teachers, to get a grasp of what the child's needs are and how they are faring physically, intellectually and emotionally.

"The child is the nexus of everything we do," Carney said. "We assess the influence of the parents. We make sure their education is good. ... We look at everyone involved in their lives. ... We're listeners."

Most Marion County children who are in the state's custody are in foster care, but there are others who are under guardianship of relatives. Still others are 18 and on their own, yet their cases are left open so they can still take advantage of state resources until they age out of the system at 21. Children in the latter two situations are less likely to have a CASA, but Starr said the goal is to recruit 60 more CASA volunteers to fill that gap.

"It would be nice if those kids had a CASA, someone to just check in every three or four months," Starr said.

To be a CASA, a volunteer has to be at least 21 and be willing to go through an intense screening process, from in-depth interviews, an extensive background check and 34 hours of training (half of which is online).

"The interaction at those trainings is important, and through several interviews, we ask questions to find out more about where the volunteer comes from and if it's a good fit," Starr said. "It's so important for CASAs to understand the system, that's why it takes a while."

People with no experience in the court system are especially attractive as volunteers because they don't come into the program with preconceived ideas, she said. It's still daunting for some, which is partly why the program tries to ease the burden through a peer support model, in which about 10 CASAs, including Carney, serve as mentors to their newer counterparts.

"We help them with what to say in court, we might serve in their stead by appearing in court if they can't make it," Carney said. "It's a cooperative environment."

Carney, who is actively recruiting more volunteers, said he learned about the CASA program through a friend who volunteers in Clackamas County.

"My interest comes from my own childhood," he said. "I grew up around a lot of violence in a poor neighborhood. I lived in a loving family, but a lot of my friends lived in distress."

The emotional toll of the job is too much for some people (Carney noted that only 18 people in his 27-member training class graduated) and that's fine.

"Through the process, you gain a lot of self-awareness," Starr said. "A lot will come back and say, 'I don't think I can handle this.' I have a lot of respect for people who recognize that. The content and subject matter can be very difficult."

When a CASA is assigned a case, they can make special requests, like avoiding a case involving sexual abuse or having preference toward cases involving children of a certain age.

Once the training hours are completed and initial contacts are made, the time commitment for a CASA can be as little as a couple hours a month, whether it's in the form of meeting with the child and/or family members, or a court appearance. On average, a case will last for two years.

"It's a very different type of volunteer work," Starr said. "It's tough but at the same time it can be so rewarding."

She said one of the most memorable cases she witnessed was when a mother had rehabilitated to where she was able to get custody of her kids once again.

"I like to be reminded that good things can happen," Starr said. "If it's safe, we need to ensure they're with their parents. Safe, loved and thriving, those are the three things we look for every child to have, no matter what. The pursuit of those three things is what keeps us going."

And it helps that CASA, a nationwide program, keeps going because it is actually mandated by the state of Oregon.

That being said, the state only provides 12 percent of CASA's yearly budget, according to Starr. That's why the organization relies heavily on grants and donations, as well as volunteers.

Besides the annual We Are For the Children luncheon (Dec. 6's event in Salem), CASA hosts a Superhero Race in April and a Light of Hope speaker event in May, for which they have Antwone Fisher booked in 2019. Fisher is a foster child turned Hollywood screenwriter whose story was depicted in a Denzel Washington film.

"Shaney has done a remarkable job as a skilled fundraiser and organizer," Carney said, adding that Starr has acquired donations of books and toys for the children.

For those who find the thought of becoming a CASA as a bit too daunting, donations are a way to support the cause, as is volunteering in the office, which Starr said is an existing need as well. But the need for a CASA is still greatest.

"These are the community's children; it's our job as a community to step up," Starr said. "If we're not willing to step up, who will? It's incumbent on us to help them be successful and to break the cycle."

Anyone interested in becoming a CASA can fill out an application at www.casamarionor.org or call CASA of Marion County at 503-967-6420. The next quarterly training for CASAs is in January.

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