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CASA Advocates for At-Risk Children

In the Spanish language, it means "home", but for many young victims of abuse or neglect, the word "CASA" might well mean "a new beginning".

CASA refers to the Worcester County organization that assists the overwhelmed juvenile court system make sure at-risk youngsters have a safe environment. It's often left to the courts in cases of suspected abuse or neglect to decide whether or not the allegations have merit and whether the child's welfare would be best served through placement in a new home or by returning the child to their parent(s) or guardian(s).

To help in the decision-making process, CASA volunteers become fact-finders; compiling information which is utilized by judges and DCF (Department of Children and Families) social workers in their deliberations. "The judge will often review 35-40 cases in a day and the DCF workers could, easily, have 25-35-40 children to keep track of," CASA's Community Resources Coordinator, Elizabeth Johnson, stated. "That's the reason why our volunteers can be so useful to the judge."

CASA volunteers come from all walks of life and are assigned to one child or sibling group at a time. "About 1/3 of our volunteers work full time," Johnson explained. The remainder of the volunteer corps is primarily made up of retired-persons who wish to contribute to their communities and the welfare of its children. "I think that this is an activity that (although it) may not be for everyone, (is) for many people ... a very satisfying way to make a real difference in the life of a child," Johnson said, noting the goal is to place each child in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

Following a series of training classes, CASA volunteers can expect to devote approximately 10-15 hours-each month on a case, which typically is decided in 9-15 months. During that time, volunteers may interview parents, educators, medical professionals, mental health professionals, foster parents and others whose input may be valuable to the deciding judge.

"Last year, we served on 16 percent of the cases in the juvenile court (including Milford)," Johnson noted. "That's not enough for me. I'd like to see many (more) CASA volunteers. Last year, we served 274 children and we're aiming to increase that to over 300, this year."

Increasing the number of children served is dependant on an influx of new volunteers. Currently, there are three volunteers from the Milford area, with 10 more having just completed the training course, which is held four times per year. "We're really making a big push (for volunteers) in the Milford area, (where) there is quite a need," Johnson explained. "We're (especially) looking for men, because half of our children are boys."

Those interested in becoming CASA volunteers can find information and a volunteer application at www.casaworcestercounty.org or call 508-757-9877. Once the application is submitted, volunteers are invited to Worcester for an "intake" interview. Following a standard background check, individuals are contacted and a training schedule is set up.

Once a volunteer has been accepted into the program, they are matched with a child or sibling group and begin to collect information, which is sent to a CASA supervisor, who then assembles a report for presentation to the judge. In Milford, CASA provides information for Judge Mary Beth Keating, who, as Johnson notes, "is a very strong CASA supporter. She actually helped with training (volunteers) when she was a DCF attorney."

Johnson explained that the children who benefit from CASA support "tend to be 12 (years of age) and under". "And almost 50 percent are under the age of six. These are the children who really don't understand what's happening to them (so) they can't describe what's happening to them."

While CASA provides at-risk children with a welcomed advocate on their behalf, volunteers receive a valuable gift as well. "We offer people a cause," Johnson said. "And that cause has a first name and a last name."




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