Positive Role Models Make a Difference for CASA Kids
By Jon Lewis
Champions for Children
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Erin Claassen
The requirements imposed on volunteers hoping to work with children through the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program are typical for people in the juvenile court system, including screenings, background checks and extensive training.
For Karen Schaefer, program manager for CASA in Shasta, Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties, there’s another requirement that stands above all others: “If you have a heart for children, this is the right program for you. That’s all you need to make a difference.”
A CASA volunteer agrees to stand up for an abused or neglected child in the foster care system. They give that child a stable, reasoned voice in what can often be a confusing and overwhelming courtroom environment and they advocate for his or her best interests.
Studies have shown that children benefit from knowing somebody is out there following them from placement to placement throughout the dependency court process. Andreas Fuhrmann and Debbie Ryan don’t need studies to convince them that CASA volunteers benefit from the process, as well.
“They have witnessed so much,” says Ryan, a teacher who ended up spending five years with a trio of siblings. “If you can bring a little bit of joy into their life, it is so rewarding.”
“I have a great time with the child I work with and thoroughly enjoy showing him new things and experiences, which can be as simple as going to Turtle Bay, kayaking at Whiskeytown, signing him up for camp or exposing him to fly fishing,” says Fuhrmann, a photojournalist with the Redding Record Searchlight.
“Watching the kid smile as he rows a drift boat down the Sacramento River is priceless … it has been said that one positive role model can make a difference in a child’s life,” Fuhrmann says. “Who wouldn’t want to be that person?”
Fuhrmann, who is single, doesn’t have children of his own and sees his nieces and nephews once a year, so working closely with an 11-year-old boy (who is now 13) was a bit of an adjustment, he says. “Earning each other’s trust has been a highlight of the experience. Along with that, I’ve seen him gain confidence in himself over the years.”
When she was substitute teaching, Ryan says she routinely encountered children in foster care. “One day they’rein the classroom and the next day they would be gone,” she recalls. She read an article describing the foster care experience—“it said that when kids were moved from one foster parent to the next, the cops would give them a garbage bag and tell them to fill it with their stuff because they’re not coming back”—and the image haunted her.
The article mentioned the CASA program, so Ryan investigated further and became a member of the first training class when the Northern Valley Catholic Social Service launched the CASA program in Shasta County in 2010.
Ryan went through the structured 30-hour training program, which is typically spread over four Saturdays, went through a background investigation and was sworn in as an officer of the court.
Schaefer says the program asks its volunteers to commit to a year of advocacy or until that time when their child is placed in a permanent home (either through adoption or reunited with the biological parents).
CASA volunteers review available cases before selecting what they feel will be a good fit. “I took a sibling group of three and ended up with that group for five years. It had a happy ending but boy, it was very bumpy. It was gut wrenching, but I was happy to see it through,” Ryan says.
The CASA program dates back to 1977 in Washington when a dependency court judge realized he wasn’t getting the full picture from the child’s social worker and attorney, Schaefer says. “He started the process of having volunteers work with kids so he could get an unbiased opinion of what kids wanted.”
The program continued to grow, and it arrived in the North State in 2001. Butte County was first, followed five years later by Glenn County. Shasta County got involved in 2010 and Tehama County joined two years later. There are 128 advocates in the four-county region and about 1,400 kids in foster care. “We could use more,” Schaefer says. “We’re not even serving 8 percent of the kids in care.”
The essence of the program is establishing a trusting relationship to allow the CASA volunteer to better advocate for the child’s best interests. Included is the responsibility to file reports with the court prior to each hearing.
“You talk to the social worker first and interview everybody involved with the case, and then you talk to the court,” explains Ryan, who now helps train and supervise new CASA volunteers. “Many times the children are able to be reunited with their parents, but sometimes they aren’t. We work until we find a forever family.”
“When you’re with the kid, it really is a mentorship role,” adds Schaefer. “When you’re producing a report, that’s when the advocacy role kicks in. But you have to have that relationship part to be an effective advocate.”
A CASA volunteer also represents a stable, consistent presence in the life of a child in the foster care system. Fuhrmann says serving in that role was particularly gratifying. “My kid has been in about five different foster homes and one group home since I’ve known him. I and the social worker are the only consistent variables in his life.”
“CASA is the one constant in their lives,” Ryan says. “We are that anchor for them.”
The fourth annual CASA Superhero Run will be held Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Redding Civic Auditorium. Money raised in the 5K and 10K races supports the training, assigning and support of CASA volunteers. For details, visit www.run4casa.com