CASA program connects volunteers to children in need

A local branch of the national Court Appointed Special Advocates program is seeking new volunteers to pair with children who are in the midst of legal proceedings.

The program, generally referred to as CASA, began in 1977 when a judge in Seattle suggested training citizen volunteers to spend time with children involved in court cases and represent their best interests to the court. The program now operates in 49 states and provides children who have been taken from their homes due to abuse, neglect or other issues with one person who is solely dedicated to their case.

That’s what makes the CASA program so vital, said Lindy Cox, a volunteer from Nikiski who has been an advocate for more than two years and involved with her first case for nearly a year.

“The nice thing is that you get to be an advocate for one child,” she said.

CASA volunteers are assigned to one case and one child at a time, and it is their sole job to check in with that child and be present at court hearings to present the child’s best interests to the court and answer questions. Joy Petrie, the program’s former coordinator and a long-time volunteer, said this is what sets CASA volunteers apart from lawyers, social workers or people serving as a guardian ad litem, all of whom are juggling more than one case or child at a time.

The volunteers don’t represent the wishes of the children they are assigned to, but rather what would be best for them, which Petrie said is often being reunited with parents or at least given a permanent home.

For this reason, the application and vetting process to become a volunteer is not easy. Potential participants have to pass a background check and must have ample time to devote to cases, which can sometimes last years, Petrie said. She and the program’s new coordinator, Thia Peters, make sure to let potential volunteers know how much responsibility they would be taking on at the program’s informational sessions.

“We are connecting people to our most vulnerable citizens,” Petrie said.

The information sessions held at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s tribal court building are a way to reach out and let people know the program exists, Petrie said.

“That’s a challenge here, is getting the word out,” she said.

It was at one of these sessions that Cox first decided she wanted to commit to CASA. Though she said learning about all that goes into representing a child’s interests in court was a bit intimidating, the program’s leaders were so encouraging that it helped her ultimately decide to pursue it.

“I was very nervous coming out of it. There’s a lot of legal aspects involved,” Cox said, adding that her “experience has been nothing but positive.”

Program leaders also meet monthly with the current volunteers to check in and get progress updates.

The Kenai Peninsula CASA program is unique in that it is one of only seven dual programs in which volunteers can follow cases back and forth between state and tribal courts, compared to the national organization’s nearly 1,000 total programs. Petrie said the peninsula’s program currently has five active volunteers and five volunteers who have been approved and are waiting for cases to work on. The next training session for new interested volunteers will begin in March.

The next informational session will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Kenaitze tribal court building in Kenai, next to the Dena’ina Wellness Center. For more information about the program, contact Jessica Crump at 335-7218 or at jcrump@kenaitze.org.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsula.com.

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