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Court Appointed Special Advocates Support Children in Foster Care in North Georgia

By LYDIA BERGLAR
News Editor

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is a national nonprofit with a Northwest Georgia branch covering four counties: Chattooga, Catoosa, Walker, and Dade. Called “Lookout Mountain CASA,” this branch is looking for additional volunteers to serve in Dade.

CASA volunteers (referred to as CASAs) are appointed to cases by juvenile court judges and asked to stay involved in a case until it’s permanently resolved. The state of Georgia reports that with 2,500 CASAs in 2023, 8,600 children were served, but 7,200 children were waiting for a CASA to be assigned to their case. Lookout Mountain CASA currently has about 300 children in foster care, and the team would love to have 20 volunteers for Dade County.

The Georgia CASA website reads, “All children should be treated with dignity and respect–not merely survive. Children deserve the chance to live in a safe, permanent home when reunification with their parents isn’t likely. Georgia CASA helps ensure that a qualified, compassionate adult–a CASA volunteer–will bring a sense of urgency to meet the needs of all children–by advocating for their best interests–and improve their experiences in foster care.”

Lookout Mountain CASA has three Dade County board members: Reese Griffin, Reese Morrison, and Grace Wooten. Griffin referred to CASA as a “ministry of presence” by which simply showing up and listening helps children through challenging seasons.

Dade’s two active CASAs are David Baker and Rita Moore. Baker began volunteering with CASA in summer 2023, while Moore has been involved for six and a half years.

Baker lives on Lookout Mountain just across the county line, but he joined CASA with the goal of working with Dade County families. He is currently working with one child in Walker County.

After retiring from his career in mental health services in Dade, Walker, Catoosa, and Chattooga, Baker began volunteering with CASA. He had heard of the program throughout his career. He said, “The reason I got involved is because CASAs have an opportunity to fill the communication gap. The different agencies that are involved–foster parents, DFCS, mental health, sometimes juvenile justice–they’re always working at capacity, but CASAs can make sure people are on the same page. CASA focuses on foster care.”

Moore’s time with CASA began in Cobb County, but after retiring on Lookout Mountain, she joined the Dade team. She currently has two cases with six children total involved. Having volunteered in many behind-the-scenes scenarios, Moore wanted to do something where she could have a fuller view of the impact. She kept coming back to the idea of CASA and became a CASA even though it felt scary to her.

She said, “It’s a scary volunteer position because you make recommendations for the life of these children, whether they go home or whether the parents have their rights terminated.”

CASAs attend court hearings and make recommendations to the judge. The hope is that they obtain an accurate overview of the entire situation and are able to make recommendations that are in the child’s best interest.

Baker said that the best part of being a CASA is connecting the many parties involved in a case and “making sure the entities are communicating in the way that they should.” Also, he values helping birth parents. “[One of the best parts is] being able to encourage biological families that want to be reunited with their child–and most of them do–encouraging the kind of progress they need to make, connecting them with resources, and giving them a picture of things that can be helpful.”

Moore agreed with Baker that most parents seek reunification. “I’ve never had a parent who doesn’t want their children,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean they always get their children back.”

Her favorite part of being a CASA is seeing the impact. “You can really see the difference a CASA makes on a case. You can see the difference in the life of the family. You can see how these children grow. It’s horrible to lose your children, so to see these parents do the hard work to get their kids back is really rewarding. Also, when biological parents can’t get the kids back, seeing adoptive parents willing to take in these kids and love them as their own [is encouraging].”

Moore has witnessed children who were developmentally behind when their case began make progress by the time the case closed.

For Baker, the most challenging situations are when reunification proves to be difficult. He explained that a number of variables may prevent reunification from happening, and in such cases, he finds himself threading a fine line between helping the families, but not doing all of the work for the parents, and also maintaining the objective status that is important for the good of the child.

What keeps Baker encouraged (both as a CASA and in his previous career) is seeing successes and incremental progress. “I come from the perspective that in every situation, there’s some spark of potential that can be encouraged. Even if somebody doesn’t get where you want them to, moving them towards a positive path makes it worth it for me. You never know what impact you can have on somebody’s life just by being there and listening.”

For Moore, a challenge is that every case is different, but she said this keeps the role interesting. “I’m something of a perfectionist and like to think that if I do a job long enough, I’ll become an expert, but that isn’t the case as a CASA.”

She continued, “It’s probably the hardest volunteer position I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding. You can offer consistency and companionship and a safe place to these children who find themselves in hard situations through no fault of their own.”

The time commitment for CASAs can vary depending on caseload and their availability. Baker said, “At a minimum, CASAs are supposed to have a monthly face-to-face visit with the foster child.” Moore noted that depending on where the families live, this can involve significant time traveling, which is the case for her currently.

Bake added, “It’s much more intensive in the beginning because you’re gathering records from the various agencies. It can take about 10-12 hours that first month of a case, and about 4-6 hours after that.” He said some of the work can be accomplished over the phone.

When asked what kind of person makes a good CASA, Baker said, “Anybody who has the time and a heart for children and seeing children protected is a good fit. There’s a huge need for people who have the time to be able to fill those gaps between the various agencies to make sure things don’t fall through the gaps.”

He noted that people who have worked or currently work in education, social services, or mental health might enjoy “a more in-depth connection beyond our professional lives.”

Moore added that CASAs don’t necessarily need to consider themselves a “kid person,” but they absolutely must be dependable and be good listeners.

Baker and Moore both agree: Being a CASA is incredibly rewarding. Baker said, “It’s great to be a part of a bigger picture that helps the scene be a little bit clearer,” and Moore said, “I love being a CASA. I’ve met some amazing kids.”

Renita Clarke is the recruiter for Lookout Mountain CASA. She said, “Studies show that when compared to children who are not represented by CASA volunteers, children with CASAs are more likely to get the services they need in a timely manner; less likely to be moved from placement to placement; more likely to do better in school; less likely to return to care after being reunited with their birth family; more likely to spend less time in foster care overall.”

Volunteers must be 21 years old or more and must pass a criminal background check, but aside from that, Clarke noted that CASA looks for objectivity, passion, and consistency. Volunteers must objectively hear opinions from every side and construct their own recommendations for the good of the children.

Also, volunteers must be passionate about becoming the child’s voice and being the eyes and ears of the court. Lastly, Clarke said consistency is key. “CASA volunteers act as a watchdog for the child and become a stable presence in the child’s life. This personal attention ensures that the case keeps moving toward a safe, permanent home for the child.”

A winter training class for volunteers begins on February 13th. The Trenton class will be held at 10 a.m., location to be determined. Email lookoutmtncasa@gmail.org or call 423-402-0843 if interested in volunteering.

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