Abused, neglected and at-risk children in Cayuga County recently gained five new advocates.
These five volunteers pledged to stand up for such children in the Cayuga County Family Court system by gathering information about the children’s cases and ensuring that judges have as much information as possible before making decisions. Ellen Kulik, Joan McCadden, Patricia Saunders, John Slauson and Kathleen Williams were sworn in as Court Appointed Special Advocates April 14 at the Old Historic Post Office Building in Auburn.
Now that they’ve been sworn in, the CASA volunteers are waiting for Family Court judges to assign them to their first cases.
"We talk with anyone involved in the family system and present information to the judge to assist him or her in making a decision that is in the best interest of the child. Our focus is to help find a safe and nurturing home for these children, whether that is back with their families or not," said William Lamb, executive director of Finger Lakes CASA, which is administered by Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes.
The CASA program came to the Finger Lakes area in 2007, when Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes received a grant from the national CASA agency and launched CASA of Ontario County. Lamb was one of the first three Ontario County CASA volunteers sworn in during the summer of 2007.
CASA is a nonprofit volunteer organization comprised of both the national organization as well as hundreds of smaller, county-level programs throughout the nation. More than 25 counties in New York state have CASA programs, including Ontario, Monroe, Steuben, Schuyler, Chemung, Tioga and now Cayuga counties, Lamb said. The organization began in Seattle in 1977 after a Family Court judge returned a 4-year-old girl to her mother.
"One week later that child was found dead at the hands of the mother’s new boyfriend," Lamb said. "The judge in the case said that he would have made the same decision today based on the information he had in court, so he called a meeting of concerned citizens who stepped up and agreed to help the court get more information, and the CASA program was born."
Backed by a court order, CASA volunteers are charged with gathering as much information about a case as possible. They obtain this information by interviewing family members, teachers, counselors, doctors and anyone with information about what is best for that child, Lamb said.
"If the court has ordered services for the family, they will assist them in obtaining those services, and help them get any other services they may need," he added.
Advocates might, for example, make sure students with special needs get the services they need from their school districts, Lamb said. Such students have IEPs, or individualized education programs, that spell out what accommodations they can receive, such as having twice as much time to take tests, having tests read aloud or having aides to take notes for them. When a student transfers from one school district to another, it can sometimes take as long as four months for an IEP to catch up with a student.
"The schools have a process for that and it just takes time. (The students) start feeling like they can’t keep up," he said, noting that CASA volunteers can hasten that process. "Because of our court order we are able to talk to everyone connected to the child, so we could talk to the old school as well as the new one."
CASA volunteers help parents who may not know how to advocate for their children, and parents usually are willing to accept the volunteers’ assistance.
"We’re not the Department of Social Services, we’re not Child Protective Services. We’re here to get information back to the judge and we can almost always work with the families by saying we want the best for your kids, too," Lamb said. "We don’t make any recommendations, and I think that goes a long way with the families that we work with."
The five volunteers who were sworn in April 14 went through 30 hours of training as well as six hours of court observation, said McCadden, a retired teacher and member of Our Lady of the Snow Parish in northern Cayuga County. During their training they reviewed past cases and learned about the guidelines they’ll need to follow as CASA volunteers. Lamb will work through their first cases with them to make sure they’re comfortable with the process and doing their jobs correctly, McCadden said.
McCadden said she hopes her work as a CASA volunteer will improve the lives of the children she works with and help make their lives more normal. By helping children, she believes she’ll also be helping parents.
"They are a unit," McCadden said of parents and their children. "If the child receives what is good for him, that’s good for the parents, and vice versa."