BERLIN — When Jennette Mears and Frank Dickson, independently of one another, read that there was a CASA program coming to Worcester County and that in order for it to work and be effective volunteers were needed they signed up without hesitation. Ten years on both are still happy that they have and on the occasion of their first decade of service hope to encourage others to join the advocacy program.
CASA is the acronym for the state’s Court Appointed Special Advocate, a third party who represents a child’s interest in court as they go through some of the most difficult times of their, and sometimes their families’ lives. CASAs are appointed by a judge to be a voice for victims of child abuse and neglect in court and ensure they reach safe, permanent homes.
Although the program has gotten a lot of traction and respect over the last decade, when they started out they were outsiders representing outsiders in an already bureaucratic and overburdened social service and court system.
But once Mears, Dickson and people like them demonstrated their usefulness and commitment they were integrated into the system and demonstrated they could do a significant amount of good.
Brigitte Saulsbury who moderates the program for Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services (WYFCS), the local administrative body, said that the judges were among the first to accept the program.
“Any help they could get they were happy to have,” she said.
Social Services, however, were skeptical at first. Not because they couldn’t use the help but rather because they were trying to be protective of the children in whose interest they were wroking.
CASAs, however, aren’t a replacement for Social Service workers. They are responsible only to the children’s legal interest, providing moral and logistical support for kids whose families are in transition.
The goal, whenever it is possible, practical and safe, is to get children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, back with their families and to help make sure the transition back into family life take place at the kind of pace to make it a permanent one.
“I love kids,” Mears said. “I’ve been teaching kids forever and I saw this as an opportunity to help in another way.”
While being a CASA sets volunteers up in the best possible position to help families and their children success, there is an amount of disappointment, but the happy ending stories are close enough together to make the work worth it.
Mears and Dickson were among the CASAs who were helping six kids to get back with their mother. It was a long struggle to make sure that she was able to provide a stable home for them, but when they finally parted ways with their charges, it was among the most satisfying experiences imaginable.
“It’s very simple,” Dickson said of making the decision to come on board as a CASA. “Do you like to help people?”
The CASA training is about 35 hours over the course of a month.
New CASAs undergo enough training that they feel comfortable with their responsibilities. After the training, they spend a few hours each week, reviewing a child’s case file, getting in touch with teachers and other caregivers as necessary and going to court when the child has to appear.
“A lot of kids don’t have a healthy parent relationship,” Dickson said. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many.”
As a CASA the opportunity to help children have the kind of productive relationship they need to be successful members of society is ever present.
Saulsbury said CASA always needs volunteers and starts classes regularly. Anyone interested in becoming a CASA may call her at 410-641-4598.