CASA program counts on volunteers to help children
By Susan Frick Carlman and Susan Demar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com November 18, 2011 5:10PM
Winnie Nyhus, one of 80 volunteers with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program for neglected and abused children, is from Frankfort. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
How to Help
For more on the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, visit www.dupagecasa.org or www.casaofwillcounty.org.
Updated: December 21, 2011 8:22AM
Winnie Nyhus couldn’t help but cry in the courtroom. “Her” four children were being adopted by a loving foster family.
“It was the best day of my life,” Nyhus said, “and it was the best day for these kids.”
Nyhus, a retired teacher, had been with the four children — ages 10 months to 6 years — whenever needed for three years, through every court appearance, as they went through the legal proceedings of being taken away from their drug-abusing mother.
For Naperville resident Karen Helm, a particularly satisfying ending came as a young man she had been helping was approaching his 18th birthday. Because he had special needs, he soon would age out of the service network that had cared for him throughout childhood. His adoption came through in time to prevent him from being placed in an institution.
As Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, Nyhus and Helm are two of 206 volunteers in DuPage and Will Counties who assist abused and neglected children, from infants through age 23. The nationwide organization comprises a network of more than 75,000 CASA volunteers, known in legalese as guardians ad litem, who represent the children’s interests and accompany them through the courts system, a process that typically takes years.
DuPage County’s CASA program works with support from 124 volunteers who currently are assisting some 244 children, Executive Director Lisa Drake said. The program meets an ongoing need.
“We are up 30 more children compared to where we were at this time last year,” Drake said Friday.
Unlike some localized CASA programs, the DuPage effort teams every child with an advocate from the moment he or she enters the legal system. The relationship is sustained through every step of the process, and every reassignment from one foster home to the next — an average of six transfers for each child, Drake said.
“It’s our goal to be the constant through the entire court process, start to end,” she said.
Although one case slogged on for seven years, most don’t take that long. Last year the average duration of a child’s journey through the system was 30 months, Drake said.
Helm, who has handled a half dozen cases over the 10 years since she spotted a blurb about the program in The Sun and filled out an application, said she’s now working on one that has lasted three years so far.
“Hopefully it will have a desired outcome,” she said.
Eyes and ears
CASA has been serving DuPage County since 1993, when 15 volunteer advocates came to the aid of 33 children. Over the years the program has trained more than 800 volunteers who have worked on behalf of some 1,300 children countywide, Drake said.
Judge Robert Anderson has seen the impact the program has had in his courtroom, where he presides over the Domestic Relations Division of the 18th Judicial Circuit Court. While he isn’t able to discuss the details of the cases, in one instance, “absolutely without question they saved the life of a child,” he said.
In his two decades on the bench in DuPage family and juvenile court, he has witnessed a chronincally overburdened Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
“They were then and they still are today, and the things that I’m hearing from the CASA program now are things that I would not have heard about back then,” he said.
The CASAs see to communications with school, foster families and other entities that have a direct impact on the child’s life.
“They do things that, in a perfect world, the caseworkers would do, but they just don’t have time,” said Anderson, who receives a report from a CASA each time a child’s case undergoes one in a series of adjudications. “They effectively serve as our eyes and our ears.”
Helm said she knew her work was making a difference the day a judge referred to one of her reports, saying, “Well, I’ve read the CASA’s report, and A, B and C need to be addressed, so we’ll be back here in three weeks.”
In Will County, judges similarly depend on the input of the children’s allies.
“My eyes immediately go to the CASA volunteer in the courtroom. You know you are going to get the straight scoop,” said 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Paula Gomora. “Often, the CASA volunteer is the one constant in a child’s life. They are so extremely involved.”
And unlike others who appear before the judge, Drake said, the CASA people aren’t working any angles.
“Our value lies in (the fact that) we’re the only unpaid representatives in the courtroom,” she said.
Where the heart is
According to CASA, kids who have an advocate stand a better chance of being placed in a safe and nurturing environment, of staying with their siblings and being adopted. Ideally the children are reunited with their birth parents, but that’s not always possible.
“Of course, you want them to go home,” Helm said. “But you want them to be safe.”
During fiscal 2011, the DuPage program helped 40 kids find their way home, out of 301 served. Another 15 were adopted, seven were emancipated, and 79 had their cases closed by the court.
Nyhus said she was inspired to give her time to Will County CASA by one of her former students, who’d had a terrible experience in foster care.
“It is through no fault of their own that they become part of a system that often lets them down,” Nyhus said. “They just need to know someone cares about them.”
The programs don’t have great difficulty finding such individuals.
“We are very fortunate and for whatever reason, people keep sending in applications,” said Drake, who shares office space in the Henry J. Hyde Judicial Center in Wheaton with a staff that includes four paid advocate supervisors.
Each volunteer applicant is carefully vetted, she said, and selected candidates undergo 35 hours of classroom training, including four hours of court observation. They learn about the court process and the advocates’ responsibilities, and each has to complete an additional 12 hours of continuing education credits, provided in a variety of venues, every year.
Funding comes entirely from private sources. Support from the county’s Department of Human Services and revenue derived from the Illinois Violent Crime Victims Act, funneled through the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, have both been reduced, Drake said. However, the situation is not yet desperate.
“It’s given us the opportunity to make new partners and find new resources that we haven’t gone after before,” she said.
Local businesses provide 2 percent of the agency’s funding, and they’re building on that as well as communicating the organization’s work and record of success with civic organizations and other groups.
“Whether you contribute $5 or $5,000, these children are the future contributors in our community,” Drake said.
Aside from the handful of paid staff and the $1 rent paid for the office space at the courthouse, expenses for the program are minimal. Drake said everything else goes into the services provided for their young clients.
“It’s just to be here for the kids,” she said. “When the kid comes into the system, we’re here for them.”