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Nonprofit supporting court advocates for children receives $75K grant

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A local nonprofit organization that supports volunteer court advocates for children has been awarded a $75,000 national grant to support their endeavors.

The nonprofit network of court-appointed special advocates, called CASA, was awarded the development grant from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association for Children at the end of 2020.

CASA of Southern Connecticut, formed in 2019 in response to a 2016 law that enables courts to appoint trained volunteers to advocate for children, recruits, trains and supports volunteers who commit to serving as advocates for children who have been victims of neglect or abuse.

This grant, said Josiah H. Brown, executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut, will help the organization fund their efforts in 2021.

Since its inception, the organization has trained 26 volunteers, including three from the New London area. Each volunteer is expected to commit to at least 18 months of service, in order to follow children through the lengths of their cases.

“During that time period the CASA volunteer might be the most consistent adult figure in the child’s life,” Brown said. “We don’t want to be one more source of instability in a child’s life.”

Karen Bergin of New London has been volunteering for CASA since the summer and currently is helping with two cases.

Bergin is retired after a career working as an advocate for children in state guardianship, with boards of education and the Department of Education, and as social worker and therapist in schools. She said volunteering for CASA was a way for her to continue advocating for children.

“It’s a familiar landscape for me,” said Bergin, who learned about CASA by reading about the work of another New London-based CASA advocate, Regina Keifer, in The Day.

Bergin said approaching advocacy as a volunteer has been different from her work experience and very impactful.

“Coming into this process as a volunteer and building a relationship with a child, you’re able to tell them you’re there as a volunteer, not just because it’s a part of your job,” she said. “It shows them you care about them and it has a pretty big impact on kids.”

Bergin, who was a foster parent for years and is now an adoptive parent, said knows how important it is for children to have a dedicated advocate. This grant, she said, will give more children that opportunity.

Other than its volunteer force, the organization works with a bare-bones staff — each staff member is trained to support 30 volunteers who are supporting up to 75 children. This grant, said Brown, will help the organization expand their staff to be able to help more children.

The nonprofit currently works with children in the New Haven juvenile court system. The grant will enable the organization to expand the number of children served in New Haven County and eventually expand further to help children in New London and Middlesex counties.

In the courtroom, CASA volunteers advocate for the needs of at-risk and underserved youth, helping judges make decisions that are well-informed for each child’s well-being.

“CASA advocates can be one more resource to help support the families and to work in partnership with the professionals to make sure there is at least one adult just focused on the child,” Brown said.

Volunteers also mentor children to help them build stronger connections with family members and their communities and help children find stable home environments and be successful in school.

According to Brown, one of the major factors impacting the number of children in Connecticut who need advocates in court, Brown said, is the opioid crisis, which he said contributes greatly to the number of children who experience neglect and are put into the foster care system.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said, also has had an impact.

According to a statement from CASA, experts fear that cases of abuse and neglect have gone unreported because of school closures during the pandemic. Children in foster care have also experienced additional challenges surrounding visits from families and social workers.

“This grant is key as we expand on our encouraging start-up and early growth in 2020, despite the pandemic. We have begun to serve children with carefully trained, supported volunteers,” said Brown in a statement. Brown said staff and volunteers look forward to using the grant funding to continue their work with the state’s judicial branch and the Department of Children and Families and are always encouraging new prospective volunteers to apply to join their program.

To hear volunteers' testimonies about the work they are doing and for more about CASA, visit CASA’s new YouTube channel at bit.ly/casasctyt.

To apply to volunteer, visit bit.ly/casasctvolunteer.

t.hartz@theday.com

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