A fundamental characteristic of the United States’ court system is that every person can have his or her voice heard — every person over 18 years old, that is. Minors are not considered capable of expressing their own interests, which can lead to a gap between the court services and young children.
That is where Court-Appointed Special Advocates come in. CASA volunteers “represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom and other settings,” according to the National CASA Association’s website. Locally, children in Clay, Riley and Pottawatomie counties are served by the Sunflower CASA Project Inc.
Jennifer Anguiano, advocate supervisor for Sunflower CASA, said the job can be emotionally draining.
“Seeing children that come into the courtroom because they have been abused and neglected is the hardest part about this program,” Anguiano said.
Founded in 1977 by Judge David Soukup of Seattle, CASA volunteers nationwide have advocated for more than 1 million abused and neglected children. In 2012, 134 children were involved in local court cases. Sunflower CASA paired 62 of those children with advocates who are familiar with their cases and support them both in and out of the courtroom.
“Visiting and spending time with your children is most important,” said Kirstin Keller, CASA volunteer and senior in elementary education. “And finding out what they like, relating to them, mentoring them, and making them feel like they aren’t an outcast is important.”
While many children are matched with volunteers, many others go without an advocate because there are not enough volunteers.
“Ideally, we would like to provide an advocate so they can have a voice in court. We don’t get to serve every child though, because we do not have enough volunteers,” Anguiano said. “We hope someday every child in need will have a sponsor.”
The Sunflower CASA Project is made up of three different programs. The Core CASA services include training advocates who provide a written report to a judge every month on the status of the children with whom they are paired, said Penny Pierce, fundraising coordinator for Sunflower CASA.
The other two programs are Sunflower Bridge, a program that helps ensure children’s safety during supervised parental visits, and Child Advocacy Centers, which coordinate partnerships to provide child-sensitive interviews and services to children and their family.
“CASA staff provide a safe, neutral and structured environment where children can visit their parents without fear of violence or conflict,” Pierce said.
Keller believes CASA’s mission is much needed in the community.
“Being a CASA has absolutely helped my life. It makes you sit back and realize what you have,” Keller said. “It makes you appreciate the resources available in the community, and it helps you notice all the effort that goes into advocating for a child.”
Keller values the difference she, and the program, are able to make in the lives of area children.
“When a child goes through this, they often feel like they are always under a huge spotlight,” Keller said. “A CASA helps make them feel a little more down-to-earth and ensures that everything is going well with their child.”
Keller said her experience as a CASA volunteer will help her once she graduates.
“As a future teacher, it is a good perspective to know what some of my future students will go through,” Keller said. “As a teacher, I won’t be able to help students in this situation as much, so it is nice to really feel like I am making a difference in someone’s life.”
For those who do volunteer, it’s a rewarding experience.
“CASA is a program that has definitely changed my life,” said Blair Diel, CASA volunteer and senior in social work. “It has allowed me to work with kids in the judicial system who need a voice. I have had the privilege of working with two different CASAs over the past 3 years and have gotten to really know them and to make their voice heard in the courts. I highly encourage anyone interested in going through the training and becoming certified to do it.”
To be a volunteer, you must be at least 21 years old, be able to commit a year to the program, complete an application and pass a background check and complete required training, according to the CASA website.
The Sunflower CASA Project could not survive without help from the community.
“CASA has two main fundraisers per year, including Cycle CASA, which is a [100-kilometer] bike ride that takes place every May,” Pierce said. “In September, CASA has CASA Comedy Club, which we fly in different well-known comedians for dinner and late night showings.”
K-State students and community members help make the program possible.
“Both fundraisers are out-of-the-box ideas that provide Manhattan with unique event opportunities which have been very successful for CASA,” Pierce said. “CASA also receives very generous contributions from Kappa Alpha Theta.”
According to Keller, the program is a vital source of support to children struggling to deal with a difficult time in their lives.
“I really feel humbled by my child and how my child handles things,” Keller said. “Sometimes kids go through some rough things at really rough times and I am grateful that we have a CASA program here to make sure the kids aren’t going through it alone.”