Marissa was 14 years old when her situation was brought to the attention of Advocates for Children, one of 18 Court Appointed Special Advocates programs in Colorado. Unspeakable instances of abuse had caused her to be removed from her mother’s care and placed in a foster home.
“This started as a typical case for our CASA volunteers,” recalls community relations director Andrea Tagtow. As time went on, Tagtow added, it became apparent that it wasn’t. Marissa wasn’t getting along with her foster mom or her peers, she’d harmed herself and was bouncing around multiple foster and group homes.
Marissa’s story could have had a much different ending had it not been for a CASA volunteer named Kathleen, who bonded with her in a way others could not. She encouraged Marissa to stay in school, helped her strengthen her sense of self-worth and eventually arranged for Marissa to move in with a supportive aunt.
Normally that would signal “case closed,” but when Marissa turned 16 she moved to Colorado Springs. Kathleen remained in touch, offering whatever support she could, especially that having to do with the importance of education, so that Marissa wouldn’t fall back on old habits, Tagtow said.
Today Marissa—“a kid,” Tagtow said, “who didn’t even know what college was—is studying to become a veterinary technician and speaks publicly on how CASA changed the trajectory of her life.”
And Kathleen still checks in on her on a weekly basis.
“Our goal is to find the best permanent outcome for the children that we serve in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties,” says Josefina Raphael, the executive director of Advocates for Children, which served some 900 youngsters in the last fiscal year. “We want them to become independent and productive, not part of the welfare system.”
Colorado’s 18 CASA chapters vary in size, with staffs ranging from one to 30. They’re located in both metropolitan and rural areas, serving children and families of all ethnicities and financial circumstances. “Child abuse happens everywhere,” Raphael adds. “There are no geographical or financial boundaries.”
And not all abuse is physical. “Abuse isn’t just about the bruises you can see,” Raphael says. “Some of our most heartbreaking cases involve severe mental abuse, which is equally, if not more, damaging.”
Volunteers are the heart of each chapter. Advocates for Children has 300-plus volunteers, men and women who the organization says are “ordinary citizens doing extraordinary work” by establishing stable relationships with foster children, getting to know their unique history and making informed recommendations to the courts.
Statistics prove that children paired with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find a safe and permanent home and do better in school. Also, they’re likely to get more help while in the system and spend less time in foster care.
Prospective CASA volunteer must fill out an application, submit three references to guarantee that the individual is a person of character, competence and reliability, and participate in an in-person interview. An extensive criminal background check is run, and those who pass are then required to complete 30 hours of training that focuses on the dynamics of child abuse, juvenile law and court structure. When that is done, the volunteer takes an oath in court and is officially a sworn CASA volunteer.
Volunteers are assigned to one family at a time.
“Our volunteers are faced with some incredibly tragic cases,” Tagtow notes, “but they don’t focus on what has happened; they focus on their futures.”
They do this by attending parent-teacher conferences, helping with homework, taking the youths to a park or playground, and getting them into the best possible place in order to overcome, and end, what they have been going through.
“We want them to be kids while the adults figure out the best treatment plan.”
Mission: To work in cooperation with the state Department of Human Services, the county courts, child-serving agencies and other partners to improve the lives of abused and neglected children in Colorado. Information on the organization, its events and how to volunteer at coloradocasa.org.
History: From 1981-84, the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program was part of a national demonstration project operating in conjunction with Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center to find the best way to provide effective legal representation for children who were facing court appearances that would determine their future after having been removed from their homes because of abusive or neglectful circumstances. CASA of Larimer County was the first CASA program to incorporate in Colorado in 1984. Today there are 18 CASA chapters in Colorado and 943 chapters nationwide.
How you can help: Become a CASA volunteer, attend fundraising events such as Arapahoe Advocates for Children’s Red Wagon Ball on Sept. 29; A Night for CASA, benefiting CASA of Jefferson and Gilpin Counties, also on Sept. 29; or the 12th annual CASA of the Continental Divide Golf Tournament on June 14 at The Club at Cordillera Summit in Edwards. Cash donations to any CASA chapter can be made on Colorado Gives Day.
Main programs: In addition to the core service of being a child’s voice in court, each CASA chapter tailors its programs to meet the needs of the community it serves. CASA of Mesa County, for example, offers two classes for divorcing parents: Co-parenting Healthy Children and Surviving High-Conflict Divorce. In 1991, an historic farm house in Fort Collins was donated to CASA of Larimer County for use as a safe place where neutral professionals could oversee custody exchanges and supervised visits. In 2017, Harmony House was the site for 2,572 of these services involving 232 children. Advocates for Children’s Legacy Program matches volunteers with current and former foster home residents between the ages of 14 and 24 who need help in becoming self-sufficient adults, training them in matters that include housing and money management, building self-esteem and the importance of education. Its Educational Advocacy initiative offers ongoing tutoring in schools, libraries and recreation centers. And, volunteers are assigned to the truancy court in Arapahoe and Douglas counties to help resolve issues relating to why kids are skipping school.
Joanne Davidson’s fondest wish is that every child is able to grow up in a loving, safe and supportive home. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, which is why organizations like Advocates for Children and the other CASA programs in Colorado are such an important resource.
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