By Brandon Martin
With a new director on board, Focus on Youth/CASA is looking forward and seeking volunteers to be voices for youngsters.
The 501 (c)3 non-profit organization recruits, screens, trains, and supports community volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children involved in court proceedings.
“The main job of being a CASA volunteer is being the voice for a family and children that don’t have a voice. You want to make sure that they are getting all of the services that they need to get to where they need to be,” said Ricky Walker, who recently added a new hat to his collection when he accepted the post as the new executive director of the agency.
Walker, who also is the executive director of ANCHOR, said the common thread among the organizations is that they serve families and youngsters during trying times.
Focus on Youth/CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) is a blend of two programs: Focus was launched in 1975 to provide at-risk youth in the Martinsville/Henry County area with delinquency prevention services to help youth develop positive attributes and avoid adjudication.
CASA began in 1977 when a Seattle Superior Court Judge came up with the idea of appointing community volunteers to speak up for the best interests of these children in court. The initiative now includes 948 state and local program offices nationwide.
Walker said that the services provided by the organization depend on the needs of the individual families and children.
“We coordinate with the Department of Social Services. We coordinate with the Piedmont Community Services,” Walker said. “We coordinate with several social services agencies and just try to make sure that the family is connected with all of the services that they need. We try to make sure that we maintain those partnerships to ensure we can make those connections for the families.”
Regardless of the services provided, volunteer advocates have the ability to help change lives, Walker said, and recounted the case of an 11-year-old boy with younger siblings. The boy hadn’t had contact with their parents in several years, as he and his siblings bounced from building to building. Their situation was so dire at one point, the boy taped cardboard to windows so he couldn’t see his siblings shiver throughout the night.
According to Walker, the boy — now 16-years-old — was lucky enough to have a friend whose family decided to take the children into their home.
“One of the parents filed a petition with the courts and that is how CASA got involved,” Walker said. The children were in a good short-term situation with that family, but “we were able to facilitate the family applying for custody, and they eventually adopted the children.”
While that story had a happy ending, Walker said many do not.
“In a lot of cases, that is not the case,” Walker said. “The families and the children are in very dire situations. There may have been a very bad custody situation. So, CASA works with the families and guardians to make sure these children get what they need, maybe not always what they want sometimes, but that they are getting what they need.”
The organization is currently recruiting new volunteers that would like to make a difference in the community.
Cyndi Worley, coordinator of the volunteer program, said it’s not like a normal volunteer opportunity.
“This is a job,” Worley said. Participants may have the “volunteer title, but we do more work than an employee does. We have teachers, mental health specialists, doctors and lawyers who serve as advocates and they’ll say, ‘I do more work on a case than I do in my own office.’”
Although the workload is heavy, the position is not without its perks.
“The biggest reward is that they will see situations where they have actually made a difference in this family and this child’s life,” Walker said. “It takes a desire to help families and children. It takes patience.
“You really have to have a strong desire to want to make a difference in the world. If you change the course of a family, or more so the child, then you can bring that person into being a productive, contributing member of our community,” he said.
Worley added that volunteers should “have a good heart, be persistent and organized.”
Those looking to make a difference must also be willing to go through tough times, according to Worley.
“There have been times where families involved in the cases don’t take too kindly to people coming in their homes and looking around,” she said. “They might not like the way that things are going with the advocate because the advocate isn’t seeing things their way. I intervene when a client comes against an advocate and that’s just one of the struggles.”
Additionally, Worley said volunteers must have an open mind since adapting to the environment isn’t always easy.
“I had no idea about what abuse was,” she added. “Going into some of the homes and wondering how anybody could live in these homes. How could anybody treat a child like this? After they’ve had a taste of that, another difficult part is trying to convince them to continue and to get tough skin.”
Those able to adapt may just find something special to take pride in, Worley said.
“We have to take the good with the bad but the good is when we have children who have been abused and they are finally free of that,” she said.
Volunteers primarily report to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, but that they can be brought in for Circuit Court if a case is appealed or General District Court.
Worley explained “the judge appoints a case. I get it. I assign it to an advocate. I go over the cases with them. I help them with whatever.”
Worley said that advocates write reports and submit them to the courts 15-days before the court hearing. She helps in “writing the reports, gathering documents. It might be doctor’s notes, school information or mental health and putting that all together and presenting the report to court. I attend court with the volunteers. They don’t go by themselves.”
Given the service area, CASA volunteers may expect to do a lot of traveling.
“There have been times where I have a case in Henry County, Martinsville City and Patrick County on the same day,” Worley said. “The judges try really hard to not let that happen.”
Volunteers are reimbursed “for mileage when they have to travel because we cover Martinsville, Henry and Patrick counties,” Walker said. “That doesn’t come out of their pocket. They are already giving us enough with their time to us and the children so we try to do everything we can within our budget. It is a volunteer position, but we do everything we can to support the volunteers.”
Before any solo fieldwork, volunteers must undergo extensive training, Worley said, adding that volunteers won’t just be thrown into the fire. Instead, she said she takes them under her wing until they learn the ropes.
“In class, it is about 40-45 hours and I usually run it for 13 weeks,” Worley said. “In the past, it’s been one day a week in the evening from like 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. We also do court observations and time spent shadowing with other advocates. We never let them go out on their first or second case on their own. They have someone that teaches them the ropes.”
Given the current pandemic, Walker said that training has been modified to fit the new virtual environment.
The first “training that we’ve done in the advent of the pandemic” is upcoming soon, he said, adding that “a lot of the training now will be virtual. There will be some stuff that will have to be done in person, such as the training in the court system, as far as how to testify and appear in court. There will be a few of the classes that may be in person, but we will be social distancing and using personal protective equipment for any of that which is required.”
In the last fiscal year, Walker said the organization served 104 children, with volunteers putting in a total of 8,472 hours to serve the children and families. He said there were 58 males and 46 females, aged 18 and under.
“This past fiscal year, we had a total of 16 volunteers, but right now we have 11 and we are trying to find more volunteers,” Walker said. “We are trying to get enough people to start training here soon and we’d like to have at least five or six more to cover the needs of the area. We’ve had four to respond” to previous requests for help.
Volunteers must be able to pass a background check that would not preclude them from being around children, and be at least 21 years of age, he added.
“It takes a special person to want to do this, and we understand that,” Walker said. “We want to reach out to the community and let folks know that if you have the time and/or desire, then we have a space where you can actually make a difference in the community.”
While CASA is seeking more volunteers, there also are other ways the community can get involved.
“If there is anybody interested in serving on the Focus on Youth/CASA board then we have a couple of openings there as well,” Walker said. “We’d love to get some community leaders involved with that.”
He said the board oversees the day-to-day operations and meets once a month.
Given Walker’s 30-year career in law enforcement, his newest hat, like his post with ANCHOR, also is a perfect fit.
For more information, visit https://www.foycasamhc.org/.