In a small office in downtown Newport News, three passionate women work to protect the many children in the city who are abused or neglected.
Their mission is to make sure children are not forgotten victims, that their voices are heard in court and that they are given the best chance for success despite what is happening in their homes.
The women work at CASA, which stands for Court-Appointed Special Advocates. They ensure that young victims of abuse and neglect are assigned volunteer advocates to speak up for them before a judge. CASA is a non-profit organization funded by grants. It has existed in Newport News since 1985. CASA has offices all over the country.
CASA was started in 1977 by a Seattle judge who believed important information in cases regarding the lives of children seemed inaccessible. This judge felt that he had to make lasting decisions without sufficient knowledge. CASA, he hoped, would change that by giving judges more information about the children.
It proved true. CASA has been an integral part of the court system on the Virginia Peninsula. In Newport News, when a case involving a young victim comes before a judge, chances are high that he or she will ask CASA to intervene on behalf of the child. CASA then assigns one of its volunteer advocates to talk to the child, delve into all aspects of the child’s world and determine what is believed to be best for the child’s future. The advocate speaks in court on the child’s behalf.
“These volunteer advocates are a powerful voice for powerless children,” says Patti O’Neal-Kauffman, executive director. “They are passionate about the child. They like to see the child thrive.”
In many instances, a case involving a child is rooted in poverty and/or substance abuse. Often, the child has been taken out of the home and placed into foster care.
The advocates “can make the difference between life and death…between hope and hopelessness…between a productive life and one full of despair,” CASA’s mission statement reads.
Young victims often feel helpless and alone. CASA volunteers work to manage their feelings and help them to realize a positive future.
“Today, a CASA volunteer spoke with a child who felt he had no future. Today, a CASA volunteer listened, offered support and made a child feel wanted and special for the first time,” reads the CASA literature.
The information the advocate provides to the court helps the judge make an informed decision about the child’s future. Often, the CASA report will shed light on information about the child’s situation the court did not know, says Angie Glaspell, CASA program director.
Children form relationships with these advocates and often share information about their lives that they otherwise would not disclose.
The advocates, Glaspell says, “are the boots on the ground. They go in and keep their eyes and ears open. They observe issues that others might miss.”
CASA currently has approxmately 25 volunteers but is in need of more.
“We would love to have 50,” O’Neal-Kauffman says.
To become a volunteer, a person does not need any specific experience. CASA trains all volunteers. All types of people have become advocates.
“Sometimes someone experiences something in his or her own life. Sometimes someone worked in certain fields. Sometimes it’s just a calling,” says Deborah Delosreyes, volunteer services coordinator for CASA.
To be a volunteer, a person must be 21, have a high school diploma, have no felony convictions and submit to a background check. The training is 34 hours plus several hours of court observation. A volunteer must be willing to keep all information confidential and be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing.
“We are in desperate need of volunteers,” Delosreyes says.
To help children navigate the court system and, in turn, find a safe, happy future is truly rewarding, she says. It’s an endeavor that can change for the better the lives of both the volunteer and the child.
The impact that CASA has is huge. Being a CASA volunteer is a great opportunity to create good in the world. It is not, she says, a daunting experience.
“We say that if we can help a child heal today, we won’t have to fix an adult tomorrow,” she says.
TO THE POINT
Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)
Addrews: 230 25th St., Newport News, VA 23607
Contact: Deborah Delosreyes, volunteer services coordinator