Volunteer-Driven CASA Program Advocates for Foster Children
By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio
As a retired special education teacher who worked for more than a decade in early intervention support, Nancy Zang knew her professional experience could help the Mental Health Association of Frederick County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
Begun in Frederick County in 2001, CASA recruits and trains volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children in the foster care system. Volunteers are typically assigned one child and follow the case until they leave the foster system—on average a year and a half. Sometimes volunteers are given siblings to follow at the same time. Each individual meets with their assigned child at least once a month and provides written reports to the court discussing whether the youth’s rights and needs are being met.
Zang, an Urbana resident, has been a CASA volunteer for a decade and worked with seven children over the years. She has enjoyed her experience, noting her supervisors as well as social workers are very supportive of the volunteers work. “There is just a lot of support and I have really appreciated that over the years,” she says. “…I can’t say that I have worked with anybody that isn’t really out for the good of the child and trying to do the very best they can for these children.”
Volunteers like Zang must pass an extensive screening process including interviews and a fingerprint and background check. They also have to complete 30 hours of initial training as well as 12 hours every year after. Jennifer Fuss, CASA program manager, notes the initial training takes about six weeks to complete, after which volunteers are sworn in by the court. Last year, CASA had 45 volunteers helping 58 children in Frederick County.
“The CASA program is an integral part of MHA because it is prevention-oriented,” says Shannon Aleshire, MHA’s chief executive officer. “We know that the majority of the kids who are in the foster care system have experienced some kind of adverse childhood experience. We also know that a caring committed adult can make a difference in a child’s life. We want to prevent as many problems going forward as we possibly can.”
MHA encourages potential volunteers during the application process to understand the difficult nature of the position. “We always tell people it is one of the most intensive opportunities that is available,” she says. “There are not very many things that put you in touch with a vulnerable child and [the] family and the court process.”
Volunteers meet with the child and parents and other family members and present their status to the court, including if the parents are doing what they have been legally ordered. They also look at education and determine if the child’s needs are being met.
The task can be difficult but Fuss says volunteers want to be involved in something that is helpful for children. “I really hope that our volunteers can say this was a meaningful experience, that they felt heard by the court by submitting reports and participating in the court process,” she says. “I hope volunteers see that families can succeed even after hardship and that children are resilient.”
Aleshire notes the volunteer advocate is the one person who is speaking in the best interest of the child/youth and serves as the eyes and ears for the court, which heavily relies on their recommendations. “I think it is awesome that [volunteers] are willing to make that level of commitment to the children and youth of our community, but it is critically important at the same time,” she says.
Though Beverly Simpson lives in West Virginia, she decided to volunteer her time in Frederick where she works. “I chose to be a volunteer because I wanted to be a voice for children in foster care who wanted to feel included instead of secluded,” she says.
She’s been a volunteer at CASA for a little over a year and has been working with a pre-teen child in the foster system. Through her time with the nonprofit, she has learned how vulnerable children are and how many just want love and attention. “This experience has made me have a clearer perspective of how important mental health is in children,” Simpson says. The most rewarding part of volunteering for her is building relationships with youth, developing a trust and watching them grow and learn how to advocate for themselves.
Tiffany Sifford had been looking into adoption when she decided to volunteer with CASA. Over her four years with the program, she has worked with two teenagers and discovered how much of an impact she has made on their lives. “They still reach out to me even though their cases are closed,” she says.
Sometimes they are just seeking life advice when they contact her. “I guide them, ask them, ‘What do you think?’” she says. “I always tell them if you are fighting with a decision and wrestling with it and you are not at peace about it, it is usually the wrong decision, but when you feel peaceful about whatever decision you make you know it is the right one. So, without me always trying to give them the answers, I let them figure out themselves. … I like watching them blossom and grow and challenge themselves and make mistakes and be like, ‘You know what? You were right.’”
Many of the children in the CASA program have faced disparity and many obstacles, which may skewer their perspectives. Sifford notes she always gives the example of the half-full or half-empty glass. “I try to look at it like, ‘Hey, there is something in the glass so we can work with what is in the glass and we can fill it later on,’” she says. “That is the perspective I like to push on them. Look at everything. Don’t let what happened to you stop you.”
Ian Kallay moved to Frederick about five years ago. With a desire to volunteer, he had a friend who gave his time to a similar program in Ohio and recommended he check out CASA. Over the past three years, he has worked with two teenagers. The experience has given him the opportunity to learn about the judicial system as well as see families work through tough times. “The program is awesome,” he says. “It can be very stressful at times but you learn a lot. I’ve never learned and experienced the world as much as I have having these two cases and working them. … It is just really rewarding to be that extra set of eyes that is not biased and doesn’t necessarily have tons of other cases to look at.”
After working for the federal government for 30 years, Chris Perry wanted to continue in the area of public service after he retired. In 2014, he decided to volunteer with CASA. After his wife Jenny retired from her job as a high school counselor three years ago, she still wanted to work with kids, so she also joined the program.
The Jefferson couple have each worked with four children ranging in age from preschool to teenagers. Chris Perry says he enjoys discovering who the child is, how they see themselves and helping them to navigate life’s experiences while discovering new pathways. Through her work, Jenny Perry has seen how resilient the children and families are as well as how many people work together to help the kids. “There are just a lot of people who care about kids and will jump in,” she says.
Jenny Perry finds getting to know the kids and their families to be the most rewarding part of volunteering with CASA. “I think when you get to know the families, it changes your first impression of what the situation might be and you end up really caring about everybody,” she says. “It is really rewarding to watch the way that children can heal and that families can heal.”