By Dominique McIndoe
House, the Spanish word for house, is an apt acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates Children’s Intervention Services. The Manassas-based nonprofit has worked since 1994 to give a voice to abused and neglected children of all ages, and helps them find and thrive in safe, permanent and loving homes.
In our imperfect world, children are among the most likely victims of abuse, neglect and violence. According to CASA CIS, more than 1,700 children a day in the United States are confirmed to have been abused or neglected in one way or another. This is by no means exhaustive given the number of crimes against children that go unreported. In Virginia in 2020, there were 33,380 reports of abuse and by the end of the year, nearly 5,000 children remained in foster care.
The numbers are alarming, but the encouraging news is that statistics also show that children who experience trauma do better if they have a reliable and consistent adult in their life. This is where CASA CIS tries to fill the void. They serve children in need in the counties of Fauquier, Prince William, Rappahannock and Warren, as well as in the towns of Manassas and Manassas Park.
“Every child we serve has experienced trauma from a trusted caregiver, and often the trauma continues when they are transferred to a home with strangers, lose touch with family members and change often. school. It is heartbreaking. Our passion is to provide every child with an advocate to stand by their side and be their voice, ”said Lori Battistoni, Executive Director of CASA CIS since March 2021.“ Children who have CASA advocates do better in many ways. regards. They are much more likely to find safe and permanent homes and half as likely to return to a foster home. They receive better services and perform better in school. They are more likely to graduate and be successful adults.
Since its inception, CASA CIS has helped at least 200 children per year, at least 5,000 children over the past three decades. The cornerstone of the organization is the role of CASA’s Volunteer Lawyer.
CASA volunteer lawyer, a voice for the voiceless
When CASA CIS receives a case from the local courts, they assign a volunteer for each child. This means that the highly trained volunteer, an independent representative of the court, provides the judge in charge of the case with extensive research and general information about the child – information provided by teachers, counselors, educators and therapists, for example – to explain the child’s situation and help the court to make the best decision regarding the child’s life situation.
“We start by investigating and talking to different parts of the child’s life,” says Stephanie Swift, a volunteer activist who has worked with CASA for over 16 years and has helped nearly 30 children during this time. “Our job is to be a very good listener and observer of the child and his or her life month after month… We want to provide that security and that stability.”
The CASA volunteer lawyer does not replace the social worker, lawyer, or judge, and they do not provide legal representation. They provide vital information that could help lawyers when cases are brought before the courts. CASA notes that “volunteers do not represent the wishes in class. On the contrary, they speak the best of the child interest. “
In addition to giving a voice to vulnerable children who often cannot speak for themselves, CASA volunteers ensure consistency and continuity for every child they help. They make real connections with the children and their families, staying on business for as long as possible until the matter is resolved or the children are in a permanent, safe home.
Volunteers come from very different backgrounds and undergo a rigorous 30-hour training course during which they gain in-depth knowledge of court procedures, child rights advocacy techniques and the intricacies of early childhood development, child behavior. adolescents and child sexual abuse situations.
“The most rewarding part is being able to give back to the community and be the voice of children, the little people in society, helping them to grow into healthy and fully functional adults in the future,” said Swift.
Being a CASA advocate is not without its challenges, admits Swift.
“It’s hard to see the fight,” Swift says. “It’s frustrating not to see progress with the parent for example, or things with the child are not rectified. But you never give up on encouraging and advocating for progress can be done.”
Evenings under the stars
Battistoni pays tribute to the funders of CASA CIS – the support system of federal grants, donors, fundraisers, corporate gifts and community donations – without which the operation would cease to exist. Notable community partners include Alliant Wealth Advisors, Bion, Inc., Josie Geiger, Kenneth & Sharree Ryder, Leidos, Ennis Electric, MEP Partners, SERVPRO Industries, ESI, Progeny Systems, the Breeden Foundation, the Neall Family Charitable Trust and The Giving Heritage Hunting Circle, among others.
CASA’s annual Evening Under the Stars Gala is also a major source of funding for the organization. The 2021 event will take place on September 11 at Foxchase Manor in Manassas at 6 p.m. This year’s fundraiser is particularly exciting, as the event was virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The past year has been a fundraising challenge for CASA,” says Battistoni. “Our community partners have really stepped up the virtual events. Without them it would have been difficult.
The future stepping stones
In 2021 and beyond, CASA CIS aims to recruit more volunteers who share common cultures with children or identify with them to some extent. More bilinguals and African-American advocates could provide better readability for children and their families, and, in turn, better services. However, volunteers of all ethnic and educational backgrounds are welcome. No specific or legal training is required.
Preliminary studies show that children who have been assigned to CASA volunteers tend to spend less time in court and less time in the foster care system than those who are not represented by CASA. The judges also observed that CASA children have a better chance of finding a permanent home than non-CASA children. Battistoni and Swift have seen for themselves the remarkable changes, positive results and glimmers of a better future for children that CASA CIS is helping to deliver.
“There are children who are very vulnerable and scared and they need a voice – a reliable adult to protect them and stand up for what they need,” Battistoni explains. “They are in our community, these are places you wouldn’t expect… Our goal is to be there for them, to listen to them and to look out for their best interests.
“. “Attend CASA events, donate, advocate. We could, and should, take the time to think about how we can best take care of each other. “
To donate to CASA CIS, visit their website at casacis.org. To become a volunteer advocate, contact the organization’s children’s advocacy associate, JoAnn Polen, at [email protected]
Dominique McIndoe ([email protected]) is Assistant Production Editor at Rowman & Littlefield and a longtime writer.