For local children who have been taken away from their families and placed in foster care for their own well-being, a CASA can be a lot more than a home. It’s also a person who stands up for their best interests in court.
An acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASA is an organization in Santa Fe and around the country that assigns volunteers to assist with and advocate for children in foster care, as the court determines whether they can be returned to their biological parents.
"CASA makes sure that kids are getting their needs met while they're in foster care, that someone's looking out for them," says Desiree Beltran, the volunteer coordinator for CASA Santa Fe, who works with judges to match children with advocates.
The majority of children in the program are under the age of 5, and many don't appear in court on days their cases are being discussed, hence the need for advocates to give voice to their needs.
Volunteers check in with a child and his or her foster family at the home and then report back to the judge about the child's progress and whether the child is getting access to counseling, health care and services in school such as speech and occupational therapy, if needed.
"At the start [of a case], the recommendations are about what the child needs at the moment, to get better in school or for their mental or physical health, and towards the end, it's really based more on recommendation to the judge about where the child should be permanently placed," says Beltran.
After a screening process that includes a background check, selected volunteers receive 35 hours of training that covers topics like the process of the court and judicial system, information about substance abuse and other domestic issues, and cultural and diversity sensitivity.
"Above all, [the volunteers] should be passionate about advocacy through the court system," says Beltran.
Adair Waldenberg, a volunteer with a background in higher education, says that the work is rewarding but difficult.
"It can be incredibly frustrating and gut-wrenching…but it's crucially important," Waldenberg says.
Having empathy and keeping an open mind have helped her a lot as a volunteer, she says. "You can't go into a case with any biases," she says, "except to make sure the child has the best access to resources."
Another reason CASA is useful is because the various lawyers, the judge and children's court attorneys from the Children, Youth and Families Department attached to a child's case often juggle several cases at once and have large workloads. In comparison, CASA advocates are only tasked with one child at a time.
Beltran says that this allows the child to be the "sole priority" of the advocate, who acts as the "eyes and ears of the court," since they have more time to conduct visits. Although there are many professionals from the court and social welfare organizations working on a child's case, Beltran says, "there is mutual respect because everyone recognizes that we all do this work because we care about children."
The Santa Fe program, which was founded in 1995, currently has about 33 volunteers, but a new recruiting and training session is set to start in April. Beltran hopes to train a group of up to 15 new volunteers and says there's still space in the upcoming session.
Children land in the foster care system, volunteers say, largely because the adults in their lives have problems with substance abuse and other common threads, including domestic violence. Many times, these issues stem from a lack of available jobs or economic resources.
Waldenberg adds that sometimes the cycle of abuse and neglect is carried from generation to generation, so parents don't understand how to properly care for and behave with a young child.
"Neglect can be much worse than abuse, because at least in abuse there's some manner of attention," says Waldenberg. "We want to stop the cycle."
To cope with upsetting situations, volunteer Doreen Sansom, who has worked as an advocate since 2010, says that the volunteers have started to meet in a reflective peer support group to air their feelings about certain cases and seek advice.
"We all get stuck sometimes," Sansom says. "I had to learn to take care of myself when emotions were raised."
With a new training session on the horizon, this work may not be for the faint of heart, but it can have immense benefits, for both the volunteer and the child.
"I believe if you're going to change the world," Waldenberg says, "you start with children."
Sign up to volunteer at casafirst.org or call 820-1500 before April 3.