Jan. 22—When young people enter the juvenile court system as victims of abuse or neglect, the adults who advocate on their behalf are a key lifeline in helping them navigate the unfamiliar and daunting legal terrain.
In Cullman County, adults who volunteer to play that role are called Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, and right now, they're in short supply.
"We need more people to volunteer to advocate for children in foster care," explains CASA case manager Candace Lingo. "We deal with anybody who is in and out of home placement, whether they are family or foster family — though the majority are in foster care. Generally, in Cullman County, you're looking at 200 or more kids in foster care at a given time. Our goal is that the majority, if not all of them, will have a CASA volunteer."
Coordinated through Cullman Caring for Kids, the CASA volunteer program works with local district judges to assign volunteers to children in the juvenile court system. Being a CASA volunteer isn't about having legal expertise or career-level training in how the court system operates. Rather, it's about representing the child's best interests — and making sure they don't get lost in the sometimes-tumultuous shuffle of foster care.
In order to do that, CASA volunteers get to know the children they serve. They spend time with them, conduct home visits (whether that's a foster home or the home of a family member), and listen to the wishes of the young people themselves. Each child's case is unique, and some can pose serious emotional challenges not only to the children, but to the volunteers as well.
Lingo said that CASA volunteers work with the program to identify the cases they feel most qualified to take on, and always have discretion in accepting or deferring for another volunteer their advocacy role in any given case.
"When our volunteers come in, they're able to tell me if they think they'll be able to handle it," she explains. "We're bound by the rules of juvenile court. The volunteers can come to us and say, 'This type of case is too much for me.'"
Currently, the CASA program fields about half as many adult volunteers as Lingo says are needed. "The need for volunteers is definitely there," she says. "We would like to have at least 30. Due to COVID, we've had some setbacks. Right now, we've got 17 volunteers. The more volunteers who enter the program, and the more that DHR and the judges see we have available volunteers, the more cases they will assign."
Being a CASA volunteer is a way to assure that the priority remains on the child's best interests, and it takes a caring person with a heart for listening. "As a CASA volunteer, you're spending time with that child," says Lingo. "You befriend the child, and you advocate for the child. You make sure that the judge knows what their exact wishes are — whether or not we necessarily agree with what those wishes might be."
When a judge appoints CASA to a case, a volunteer is assigned to conduct an investigation — which can include home visits, background checks, and interviews with the child, their parents, foster parents, teachers, and anyone else involved in their life or their case.
Advocates also make sure that the child is having their medical, dental, and mental health needs met, as well as their school needs. Equipped with that information, advocates are able to make sure that the judge presiding over the case has the information they need to make a decision that leads to the best possible outcome for the child,
"You don't have to be a lawyer or social worker to be a volunteer. We're simply looking for people with a desire to help abused children," CASA's local website explains. "As a CASA volunteer, you will receive training from professionals in the legal and welfare fields, and you'll have the complete support of Cullman Caring for Kids to help you through each case."
"Anybody can be a volunteer," adds Lingo, "as long as you're 21 or older, you have a car, and you're able to pass a background check and a DHR CAN (Child Abuse and Neglect) clearance."
To take the first step toward becoming a CASA volunteer and advocating for the welfare of a local child, contact CASA case manager Candace Lingo by email at CullmanCountyCASA@msn.com, or by phone at 256-739-1111.