More than 135,000 people live in Monroe County. 120 of them are children who have survived abuse and neglect. Many of them are under five years old. They’re working their way through the court system as they wait for an adult advocate to guide them. They’re waiting for a CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocate — to help usher them through the court system and deliver them to a safe, permanent home.
Susan Wannamaker is one of those advocates. Sitting in the shade of a blue umbrella at a picnic table in front of Laughing Planet, she leaned in to discuss the details of being a CASA and how she got involved with the volunteer-powered program.
Wannamaker has been a CASA for three years, and found out about the program through her mother, who was also a CASA and a foster parent.
“My mom had done it years ago and she had foster children,” Wannamaker said. “So I knew about it, and I’ve always been interested in it.”
CASAs provide representation in court for child victims of abuse and neglect, according to their website. CASAs provide advocacy to the child victims to help them find safe and permanent housing as quickly as possible.
The program recruits members who volunteer their time to serve as CASAs, and they provide training and supervision for these volunteers. Wannamaker says she typically puts in around 20 hours as a CASA each month.
“When a child is in the system, they are a ward of the state,” Wannamaker said. “And so who’s really taking over their case is the Department of Child Services.”
The cases are each assigned a caseworker from DCS, and they are in charge of the case until it is settled or closed.
Wannamaker is currently working on her third case, and says cases are sometimes as long as a year to 18 months, though they can be longer.
Wannamaker described the process of getting to know the children and their families. CASAs get to know the housing situation, she says, and she learns about whether the child is in a foster home or not. If the child is in a foster home, she visits them in foster care and talks with the foster parents.
“You also get to know where they were removed, the home they were removed from, and you get to know the adults that were there,” Wannamaker said, discussing how CASAs handle cases. “You engage with any kind of service providers, so many times in these cases doctors will be involved, therapists were involved.”
More than one therapist can be involved, she said. Occupational therapists, therapists that are in charge of domestic abuse, and children’s therapists are all people that CASAs talk to. However, when the child is not old enough for a therapist, Wannamaker says she visits their doctors to see if they are on track with their growth and development.
When the children are older, there are more people to talk to, and more things for a CASA to be concerned about.
“I would say sometimes the issues get more complicated as a child is older, and there’s probably been more patterns,” Wannamaker said. “It’s more complicated when you’ve got a teenager because you’re worried about their peers and who they associate with, and you worry about what they do with their down-time.”
She also noted that social media has an influence on children, and that’s something CASAs spend time thinking about as well.
Though it is time-consuming, CASAs do not typically continue dealing with the families and children from their cases after the cases have been resolved or closed. Kids are often referred to places like Big Brother Big Sister or the Boys and Girls Club for more support or for a place to go for after school activities, until they turn 18.
Wannamaker says the volunteer work that she does outside of her full-time job is very rewarding.
The most rewarding part for Wannamaker is, “To see that the family has worked through some difficult times and, with the help of social services that we have in our community, have been able to move forward and be as one,” she said.
To become a CASA, volunteers undergo 30 hours of training. The training classes are free, and the next one begins on July 28. According to the volunteer curriculum goals, during this course, volunteers cover ten chapters worth of information in two weekend segments.
Since there are so many children assigned to the program and not enough CASAs to serve them all, Wannamaker says volunteering to advocate for them is a good way to give back the community.
“Giving back and having purpose in life is essential for the spirit,” Wannamaker said, adjusting the flower necklace that sat above another necklace that read “love.” “For my spirit, it is essential, and there are so many opportunities in this community, it just has to be the right fit for your needs.”
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