There are over 170 children in the foster care system in Ashland County alone. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), is here to be a voice for these children that often are never heard.
CASA is a program operated through Ashland Parenting Plus. Volunteers serve as advocates for children in foster care throughout the entirety of their case in the Juvenile Court process. They appear in court on behalf of the child, connect the child and their biological and/or foster family with needed resources, make recommendations in the best interest of the child, visit the child to check in, and ensure the child’s voice is heard throughout the process.
Prospective CASA volunteers fill out an application and are interviewed. If they are approved, they begin the training process. Training consists of approximately 30 hours of instruction over a 5 week period. During this time, volunteers learn about what their role will consist of and how to properly execute that role.
After training, volunteers are assigned to an abused or neglected child by the Ashland County Juvenile Court.
Jennifer Keller, CASA Coordinator at Ashland Parenting Plus, explained how the process begins once a CASA volunteer is appointed.
“The first thing we do is meet with the child at the foster home or relative placement,” said Keller. “We have a strong working relationship with our local child protective services through the Ashland County Department of Job and Family Services, and we depend on them for contact and background information.”
After this initial visit, the volunteer begins researching the child’s living situation, family relationships, educational and health needs. After getting to know the child and the family’s circumstances, the CASA volunteer will begin drafting their court report and recommendation for the child’s placement. If the child, their foster family or caregivers have any unmet needs, the volunteer will work to identify resources and help connect the family with the appropriate services. Staff walk alongside the volunteer and are available to assist the volunteer at every stage of advocacy.
Volunteers will stay with the same child’s case for as long as that case is in the Juvenile Court system to ensure that they have at least one constant adult they are used to and can trust.
“Case workers change,” said Keller. “Teachers change, counselors change, foster families change. Having a CASA to be the one consistent adult in the child’s life throughout the length of the case, can have a significant positive impact.”
Amber Swisher is one volunteer who has been with CASA for about a year. She is a teacher and saw CASA as another way to help children in her community.
“I’ve always had a heart for children, especially children in foster care,” said Swisher. “There are so many here in Ashland.”
She explained that, for her case, her assigned child is now, thankfully, healthy and happy after his placement in a great foster home.
“My little boy has switched social workers and placements, but throughout all of that, he has me,” she said. “It’s rewarding to know that I may be his one constant. And now that he’s happy and in a good place, it feels good to be apart of that.”
Swisher went on to describe how being that one constant has affected him.
“Every time I visit, he runs up and gives me a big hug!” she said. “He knows that I’m on his side. I’m his advocate. I have really gotten to know his parents and his foster family as well. I’m his biggest cheerleader.”
Jenny Keesee is another volunteer for CASA. She has been with the Ashland program since it began in 2017.
Like Swisher, Keesee has been working with the same child she was assigned from the beginning. For her, the best part of volunteering is often being the only person in the courtroom that is able to completely focus on the child.
“Caseworkers need to worry about legal requirements, and attorneys and judges are worried about so many other cases and legal processes,” said Keesee. “As a CASA volunteer, I can focus solely on serving that child’s best interest.”
She explained, “I am a voice for foster children in the courts. They don’t get to go to court a lot or have their say in things, so I go to court and tell the judge what they have asked me to say on their behalf. They have an opinion on what should happen in their life, and that should be heard.”
Being the voice for foster children and letting their stories be heard is what CASA is all about. This is exemplified in the Ashland CASA slogan, “Change a child’s story”.
“Every single kid deserves for their voice to be heard,” said Keesee. “It takes a volunteer willing to step up and speak on their behalf.”
Ashland Parenting Plus is currently accepting applications to become a CASA volunteer. To become a volunteer or learn more about the process, click here.