Kane County volunteers advocate to for child victims of abuse and neglect
By Melanie Kalmar For Sun-Times Media January 31, 2014 10:10AM
Court Appointed Special Advocates are sworn in recently by a Kane County judge. | Photo courtesy Kane County CASA
Updated: March 5, 2014 6:02AM
Editor’s note: Last names in this story are omitted for privacy purposes.
She cycled from Arizona to Chicago — and still, the young athlete never forgot the strength a local volunteer gave her when she was a teenage ward of the state.
The volunteer, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) of Kane County, stood by her side in the courtroom as she addressed the judge in front of her abuser.
Funded by grants and private donations, CASA Kane County, at 100 S. Third St. in Geneva, trains volunteers from the community to advocate in court for abused and neglected children. A CASA’s work begins when a child enters the foster care system and ends when the child is placed in a permanent home.
CASAs are “ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things,” said Debra McQuaid, director of advocate education for CASA Kane County.
She recalled how, on a recent visit, the young cyclist’s eyes filled with tears when she learned that CASA provides all foster children with brand new suitcases for their belongings as opposed to the traditional black garbage bags.
“You already feel like trash — and then you’re handed a trash bag, and it kind of confirms it,” she told McQuaid.
The suitcases resulted from one of the many “fund a cause” events that CASA Kane County holds when there is a need to be met.
Appointed by judges in abuse and neglect court, and probate court, CASAs work on behalf of the child. They spend time with the children and gather information about them from everyone involved in their lives — family, teachers, therapists and doctors. The CASA includes all of the information in a report for the judge, who then can base a decision on the best interests of the child.
CASAs handle one case at a time — there could be one child in the family or several — and spend between 10 and 15 hours per month on it.
“Time is relevant,” said CASA Denise M. “If it’s something that you value, you will find the time to do it.”
Training involves taking eight classes that meet once a week, two of which are online, and learning about the process firsthand from attorneys, judges and foster parents. New CASAs are assigned a mentor for their first case.
Cases generally last up to two years, McQuaid said. The first year, the goal is for the child to return home.
“We want the parents to correct the situation which brought the case in,” she said. “The caseworker, from DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) or other social service agency, will work with the parents on a client services plan, such as substance abuse counseling.
“Our main role is to see that the child’s best interests are met and they are in a safe, permanent home,” McQuaid said. “We’d like that to be with their parents — that’s where their identity is. But we also don’t allow a child to go back where they won’t be safe.”
CASA was started in Seattle in 1977 by Judge David Soukup, who saw too many kids fall through the cracks of the system.
“He wanted a third-party objective opinion, not from another social worker or attorney but from a member of the community,” McQuaid said. “He gathered a group of his friends and said, ‘If I train you, will you visit kids in foster care and interview significant people in their lives and report back to me?’ ”
In 1982, the National CASA Association was formed, and CASA Kane County followed in 1988.
It started with a couple of CASAs and five kids, McQuaid said.
“The judge had to pick and choose which cases had CASAs,” she said.
Since 2000, CASA Kane County has been able to provide a CASA for every child, McQuaid said. “In 2013, we had 258 advocates serve 552 kids.”
CASAs are the “keepers of the memories,” said CASA Dave W.
“In my first case, there were four different foster placements, two different case workers, three or four different judges. I was the consistent person. Whenever there was a new placement or new school, I was able to fill in some of the missing pieces.”
McQuaid is marveled by CASAs, who give their hearts and souls — and their time — to kids they just met.
“It is my honor to get to know them,” she said.