Ashland Parenting Plus runs a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. CASA volunteers work with children who are in the juvenile court system because of abuse or neglect.
CASA volunteers work one-on-one with a child to determine what’s in their best interests and advocate for them in court so that judges can make well-informed decisions.
Through the life of their case, a child could see a change in their case worker, foster placement, and school.
“CASA volunteers are the one constant person that they know and can rely on to communicate their wants and needs,” said CASA Coordinator Jennifer Keller.
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting life this year, some people are treading water while others have more free time than they did before and may want to become a CASA volunteer.
“It’s a great way to give back to the community and help Ashland County’s most vulnerable population,” Keller said.
Ashland Resident Kimberly Oberholtzer trained to be CASA volunteer in Fall 2019 and was officially sworn in in December. She began working with a three-year-old girl in January.
Oberholtzer began her visits in person, but scheduled virtual meetings when Gov. Dewine began the stay-at-home orders.
“It was very challenging to try to do a Zoom visit with the three-year-old because of her attention span,” Oberholtzer said. “My concentration went toward the parents because I could have meaningful conversations with them more than the little one.”
“As stay home orders lifted, some advocates resumed face-to-face visits while others continue to work remotely,” Keller said. “The safety of the children we serve, our volunteers and our staff is of paramount importance. We have taken prudent measures to help keep people safe, while continuing to fulfill our critical mission. We have adjusted our practices and protocols to prioritize safety while still supporting our essential advocacy for children in need. As the situation is constantly evolving, we will continue to evaluate our practices and response.”
Attorney Karen DeSanto Kellogg, Ashland County Candidate for Juvenile and Probate Court Judge, said the pandemic creates isolation and a change in routine which negatively impacts all segments of the population including children and their caregivers.
“Unlike adults, most children, especially younger children, are vulnerable and lack the ability to self-protect and advocate. Less children are being seen by teachers, pastors, coaches, friends and other responsible adults,” DeSanto Kellogg said. “In situations where children are involved in the Court system and appointed a CASA Volunteer, an extra set of eyes and a pair of hands is still connected to the child when those other responsible adults ordinarily in the child's life cannot be due to Covid 19. Children who are Court involved are lucky to have a CASA volunteer to help the Court as well as others serving the child meet the child's ongoing needs and ensure their health and safety. “
A CASA volunteer training class begins in October. Community members age 21 and older who have interest and about 10 hours per month to devote to a child’s case are encouraged to apply.
There are 197 children in custody of Ashland County Job and Family Services and only 17 volunteers, so the need is great. The impact a CASA volunteer has on a child and family are measurable.
A 2020 university study revealed that “judges report the impact of CASA/GAL volunteers is most pronounced in ‘promoting long-term wellbeing’ (92.2%), followed by ‘appropriate services to child and family’ (83%) and ‘psychological wellbeing’ (79.9%).”
DeSanto Kellogg has worked on cases as an attorney or a guardian ad litem that involved a CASA volunteer.
“From that perspective, I see that CASA volunteers are often highly informed about the child and the family dynamic and many of the factual issues of the case,” DeSanto Kellogg said. “I find CASA volunteers helpful to get to the bottom of issues in doing my job as guardian ad litem or attorney. The CASA volunteer makes valuable contributions when they are involved in all steps of the case and really before they even set foot in a courtroom.”
The Ashland Parent Plus team has worked hard this summer to adjust CASA training in light of COVID-19 to provide a more flexible option. This new training will be mostly online modules with some live sessions. Volunteers will be able to take the modules whenever it’s convenient for them.
“We do walk alongside volunteers throughout training and when they take on a case,” Keller said. “They are never left out on an island. Some are more comfortable with the process and independent, while others want us to guide them through the process. We adjust to their preference.”
Oberholtzer said she was nervous to get started, but once she met the family she felt more comfortable.
“I have also had a big heart for children and anyone who isn’t at home or doesn’t have a home,” she said. “I just want these people to know that someone cares about them. The experience has really touched me. I have fallen in love with this little girl. I just want the best for her and for the parents.”
Community members interested in volunteering can apply today through Ashland Parenting Plus, and then the CASA team will follow up. Keller is available to answer questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 419-281-3788.
“Most of the children in Ashland County don’t get a CASA volunteer,” Oberholtzer said. For the amount of time that it requires, it seems that more people could be helping.”