Court appointed advocates serve as voice for abused and neglected kids
Retired middle school teacher Regina Keifer signed up to be a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, for abused and neglected children in Connecticut before she even lived here.
Keifer, who moved to Groton from Illinois this past weekend, is a volunteer with CASA of Southern Connecticut, a nonprofit organization that works with children in the New Haven juvenile court system and eventually will be serving the juvenile court in Waterford.
She said by phone Monday that she missed working with kids after retiring and volunteered with a CASA organization in Illinois for five years. As soon as she found out she was moving to Connecticut, Keifer got in touch with the local CASA.
"We are the voice for the child," she said. "We're guardian ad litems."
Her role is to visit children in foster care monthly to check on them and, if they're older, take them for a walk to find out how they're feeling and doing. The advocates also check in with teachers and doctors and appear in court with children to make sure judges are updated on their cases. The CASA volunteers work in tandem with Department of Children and Families case workers and social workers to ensure the courts are acting in the best interests of children.
The commitment to work with a child generally lasts between 18 and 24 months.
"It's kind of nice to have us as a backup," Keifer said. In one of her recent cases, she said a child needed trauma therapy and wasn't getting it. She said she brought it up in court, and the judge recommended the therapy.
CASA of Southern Connecticut formed last year in response to a 2016 law that enables courts to appoint trained volunteers to advocate for children. Two groups of volunteers, all of whom have passed state and national background checks, have completed the 30-hour training program, which went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Josiah H. Brown, executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut. A couple of the volunteer advocates were appointed to cases prior the shutdown of courts.
CASA recently received a $60,000 mentoring grant from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association for Children that will enable the group to increase the number of children it serves. It had also received a $100,000 federal grant for 2020. The advocates will initially work in New Haven County and will eventually expand to New London and Middlesex counties.
Brown said volunteers will be especially needed with the opioid epidemic driving the total number of children in foster care to over 4,000 in a given month.
"Now, amid the pandemic, it's feared abuse and neglect are underreported with school buildings closed, and children in foster care face extra challenges visiting with their families," Brown said. "Volunteer advocates will be especially needed, with remote/online training available."
CASA of Southern Connecticut is a lean organization with a few paid staff members, according to Brown. There are 950 CASA-affiliated programs nationwide, including 49 state offices, supporting volunteers who work on behalf of children in the child welfare system.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the state's Judicial Branch and Department of Children and Families (DCF), and encourage prospective volunteers of all backgrounds to apply to join this movement. Volunteer advocates help identify safe, permanent homes where children can thrive."
Federal grant funds distributed through National CASA are provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, as authorized under the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990. In 2019, National CASA was awarded nearly $7 million in federal grants.
Volunteer applications are available at volunteer@CASAsouthCT.org, and interviews are currently being conducted via Zoom.
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