CASA volunteers advocate for children in legal dilemmas

A “CASA” is a special kind of volunteer — not a social worker, not a legal representative — but one who can influence the lives of children facing all kinds of dilemmas.

“CASA volunteers donate their time to put themselves in sometimes horrific situations, but each makes a difference, makes a child feel he or she has a voice,” said Court Appointed Special Advocates’ Kristin Bishay, director of the Monroe County group, who talked to Bloomington Press Club Feb. 28 at its regular meeting.

Kristin Bishay

Monroe County CASA director Kristin Bishay talked about the group at the last BPC meeting.

Bishay described CASA’s mission as ensuring that children in the courts system for whatever reasons are adequately represented, that their own wishes and needs are heard. CASAs gather court documents, reports from social services or other professionals, and talk to children who find themselves in court for reasons ranging from abuse to homelessness. CASAs are fact finders, monitors and advocates, Bishay said.

“After collecting all the information, CASA volunteers can explain what the child wants,” said Bishay. “What services are best for the child? What placement is best for the child? Sometimes, the CASA’s recommendation may be different from that of the courts or social services.”

Bishay shared several cases. One four-year-old wouldn’t talk, so the CASA sent the child to be tested by a speech and hearing professional, someone no one had thought to do. The child had severe hearing loss, which impeded her ability to talk.

Other children have been abused or abandoned by a series of relatives, have been in and out of foster care and often are woefully behind in school for these reason, Bishay said.

CASA volunteers undergo 30 hours of training and commit to two years working with the group, as that often is the life span of some cases.

Need continues to increase, Bishay said. CASA of Monroe County started in 1983 with eight volunteers serving 14 children. Today, it has 115 volunteers serving 399 children, but many cases are turned away because the group doesn’t have enough volunteers.

And not only do volunteers act for children, they also save the courts money. Bishay said 100,000 hours of volunteer work saved Monroe County’s court system more than $400,000 in fees that would have been spent on guardians ad litem. The courts provided CASA with $167,000 last year, about 42 percent of CASA’s annual budget. The nonprofit group conducts fundraisers to make up the remaining 58 percent.

Check out Monroe County CASA at its website.

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