Often the most demanding volunteer opportunities are also the most rewarding — and the ones with the biggest impact on society. That’s certainly true of being a court appointed special advocate or CASA, a volunteer who serves as an advocate for a child in Child Protective Services or CPS.
With more than 2,400 children in the system at any one time, the need for CASA volunteers is always great. But this year, CASA of Travis County has set a high goal for recruitment.
Callie Langford of CASA of Travis County said its 2018 recruiting goal will focus on the 400 or so children today who are under the age of five. That means adding 300 more trained volunteers to they system. “We have a strategic plan to be the first urban program in the country to serve all children in need,” she said, “but we need more CASA volunteers to make this happen.”
Usually, CASA volunteers are more likely to be assigned the cases where older children might express wishes that may not be in their best interest. In those cases, a CASA volunteer can step in and share their knowledge of the child and their needs. The new goal, then, is to extend that help to children who can’t speak for themselves.
When a child is too young to speak, their attorney is tasked to speak to the best interest of the child as well as their wishes. But the attorney does not always interact with the child as much as the CASA volunteer. And even the child’s caseworker, assigned by CPS, can be overwhelmed. CASA reports that the majority of caseworkers have an average caseload of more than 31 children.
“The CASA volunteers bring practicality, consistency, creativity, and courage,” said Travis County Judge Darlene Byrne, who presides over hundreds of CPS cases a year. Because the volunteer visits the child at least once a month and spends an average of 15-20 hours per month researching the case, he or she can have insight into the child’s life that others don’t. “They see services and opportunities in the community that can benefit the child because they’re looking as this child as it he were their own.”
“The most important quality of a CASA volunteer is that they have a heart for children,” said Byrne.
CASA volunteer Naphtalie Gbolahan says her heart for children came from being an only child. “I always wanted siblings,” she said. Gbolahan says at first the five-week training cycle intimidated her. But because the volunteers train as a cohort, “there’s a camaraderie that’s established,” she said. “You have a shared mission.”
The mother of two says it hasn’t been difficult to make time for her cases. “Once you build that repertoire in that relationship, you make it work. When you see progress and that child begins to open up, it motivates you.”
When Gbolahan was assigned her current case, she was surprised to find that the child lived within three miles of her home. “I just think that when someone in your community needs you, you have to help. That’s how we’re going to make Austin a better place.”
To learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer, visit CASATravisCounty.org. Next information session is Monday, February 5.