Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASAs, serve 325 to 350 children in El Dorado County each year — more than twice the number served, at about half the cost as the statewide average for CASA programs.
Part of a national non-profit organization that trains volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children and empowers every-day citizens as appointed officers of the court, the 200 advocates in El Dorado County work with the children, the parents and the court system, learning about the legal process and themselves along the way.
Colleen Roatch, 60, has been a CASA for El Dorado County for more than four years. Recently she became a case manager and her shared office at CASA on Main Street is decorated with things she and her CASA kids have made.
Mother of three grown children and a retired teacher who owned and operated her own preschool, Roatch places a high value on what retired people can contribute to CASA.
“I have the time now and the life experience to do this,” said Roatch. “Retired people have so much experience and perspective to offer.”
After retirement, Roatch wanted to be part of something bigger than herself.
“I saw an advertisement for CASA and called. It’s been a good fit for me,” she said.
As a CASA she helps guide abused and neglected children through the legal system and advocates to get the services they need.
Roatch feels her own life experience led her to CASA. She has an adopted brother who shared with her how difficult things were for him and she has a son with bi-polar disorder. Building a relationship with a CASA child and their family is paramount and Roatch has used her teaching and life experience to do this.
“My husband calls it my secret agent job because I can’t talk about it with him,” joked Roatch. “We take an oath and our work with families is confidential.”
Despite the 30 hours of training all CASAs receive, Roatch said it’s learn-as-you-go.
“It was a little scary to think about working with kids and dealing with their parents at first,” said Roatch. “But I had a case manager and there was no question she wouldn’t answer. I don’t have any fear — I can take a case manager or another CASA along if I’m uncomfortable. The court process is long and that is hard for kids to deal with. It can be frustrating because parents are sometimes in denial and blame everyone else.
“At the beginning, you see all the players at their worst — disheveled and lost,” said Roatch. “To see parents do their service and follow their parenting program, gaining back self-esteem, power and control and looking put together and then to see the light bulb go on in their heads that all these people are here to help them is rewarding.
“CASA advocates are a refuge, calm in the middle of chaos and an advisor if needed,” said Roatch. “There is no pressure with my kids — sometimes I’m just there to listen.”
Dependability and consistency is very important for CASA kids, according to Roatch.
“I go out of my way to show them that I will be there when I say I will because a lot of them haven’t had any consistency in their lives.”
CASAs write court reports with recommendations about what is in the best interest of the child. The reports are read by judges, attorneys, parents and the child.
“I try to let the child have a voice — tell them they can talk to the judge, the attorneys or the social worker,” said Roatch. “It takes a village — I enjoy working with Child Protective Services and attorneys to help the family and I like being part of that village.
We’re here to put families back together. It makes me feel good to do this. I’m not moving mountains, but I am making a difference.”
Carlson finished her CASA training in November and got her first assignment of three siblings in December.
“My son was diagnosed at the age of 2 and I’ve been home for 10 years with him. I wanted to go back into the work force and thought that a volunteer position might be a good way to gear up for it,” Carlson said.
Friends who were foster parents thought her skills as an advocate for her son would make her a good advocate for CASA.
“The training was once a week, three hours a night for eight weeks,” said Carlson. “The group had a lot of lawyers, policemen, and bail bondsmen in it and I was just a mom, but I enjoyed the classes — they flowed well and there were great speakers — it was really a positive experience.”
Training classes covered a broad base, including what CASA advocates might be exposed to, how to introduce themselves to the CASA child’s family, how to complete court reports, how to walk into a home and assess the child’s situation without being judgmental.
“I didn’t think I was judgmental but this taught me to look at things in a different light,” said Carlson.
Carlson meets with her family unit of children every other week for a few hours at a time.
“You have to be patient, flexible and have good time management because your child might be with their parents, or at school, have a doctor’s appointment or something else,” said Carlson.
CASA advocates are paired with a family the case manager thinks they will do well with.
“Ideally, you introduce yourself to the parents in the courtroom and then meet the children in the home — we advocate to keep the family unit intact while keeping the best interests of the children in mind and making sure they are safe and stable,” said Carlson.
One of the things that surprised her about being a CASA was the way that parents journey from making poor decisions to becoming selfless and making good decisions.
“I thought I would be helping to change kids’ lives, but this has helped me and changed me,” said Carlson. “I’m not so consumed by my own life and it’s made me realize all the great things in my life. I don’t look at the parents in the same way, because there’s no difference between me and them — I just had someone who put me first.”
About 50 children each year aren’t able to have a CASA to advocate for them because more volunteers are needed.
To be eligible to become a CASA, one must be at least 21 years of age, complete the training program and pass an extensive background check. No experience with foster youth or the court system is required.
“We need more male CASAs because so many men are missing out of kids’ lives,” said Roatch. “Kids need role models.”
To find out more or to obtain an application to become a CASA call Michelle Vien at 530-622-9882 or e-mail her at [email protected]
The next set of advocate classes is scheduled for June.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.