Janet Walden, executive director of the Hall-Dawson CASA program, keeps an empty picture frame on the windowsill of her office. It’s a simple item with a deeper background that perfectly represents the purpose of CASA.
Walden explained that the empty frame represents every child in the local foster care system, who she said deserve to have their picture on someone’s refrigerator.
“I wonder sometimes about the kids that we serve and who has their picture on their refrigerator, that’s why I do this work,” said Walden. “I want every child to have their picture on somebody’s refrigerator.”
The acronym “CASA” stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, which is exactly what staff and volunteers at the Hall-Dawson CASA do- advocate in court for local children within the foster care system.
“The word ‘advocate’ is a noun and a verb, so it is who we are, who you are as a person, you are an advocate and you advocate for children,” said Natalie Vinzant, advocacy director for Hall-Dawson CASA. “That means we speak up for what is in a child’s best interest.”
Staff and volunteers with CASA are notified through a court referral when a child needs help. Volunteers can chose whether or not they want to take on a case based on their comfort level.
Staff teach the volunteers how to advocate for a child from the start of a case until it closes. Nicole Presa, who has worked as a volunteer with the Hall-Dawson CASA for two years, said that a large portion of learning to represent a child is by spending time with them.
“We gather facts and we watch over the child while they’re in the foster care system and make sure that their needs are being met,” said Presa. “[Then] we make recommendations to the judge as to what we feel their best interests are.”
The Hall-Dawson CASA offers a couple of major programs to benefit the children that they serve. One is their Clothes and Toys Center, or CAT Center, which is a large room filled with donated items such as clothes, toys and even beds, for eligible families to partake in.
Another program is the “Women Working Wonders”, which is a group of women who donate $100 each per year to the Hall-Dawson CASA, then come together several times throughout the year for seminars and other events.
Through these programs and the entire Hall-Dawson CASA program, children in the foster care system can feel certain that they always have someone looking out for them. It’s a program that benefits a child both short and long term.
Vinzant explained that the children benefit immediately through having a CASA volunteer that can dedicate their time entirely to them, as opposed to an attorney that may have a heavy case load.
“It allows often for a greater level of knowledge and information gathering and just relationship,” she said. “We advocate for children, but you can’t make a recommendation on what’s in a child’s best interest if you don’t have a relationship with the child.”
Walden shared a true story to illustrate how the program can benefit children long term. She said that during a CASA conference in Gainesville several years ago, a couple of CASA directors for other programs told Walden about a young woman they had met named Vanessa, who was working in a local hotel.
Vanessa told the other directors that she had been assigned a CASA volunteer in Gainesville at one point and expressed interest in finding them. As for her part, Walden was able to locate the volunteer and reunite them with Vanessa.
“To bring them back together and let them have lunch together was just an amazing thing,” said Walden. “And to have Vanessa say, ‘Without you, I wouldn’t be where I am.’…that’s the beauty of what we do, we’re often planting seeds.”
More information about the Hall-Dawson CASA Program is on their website. The program’s greatest need, according to Walden, is more volunteers for children in the foster care system waiting for a CASA representative.
Vinzant said that volunteers do not have to have extensive knowledge on the CASA program or any issues that may come up relating to a child’s case- CASA staff will guide and teach them everything they need to know.
“We don’t expect our volunteers to be experts…but to be equipped if the situation they’re working with is related to mental health or substance abuse or of course, child abuse and neglect,” she said.
For Goodness Sake is a monthly series highlighting non-profits in the North Georgia area. Have a non-profit that you would like to see featured? Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org!