Volunteers are needed to speak up for foster youth

May is National Foster Care Month

May is National Foster Care Month, a time set to recognize foster parents, family members, mentors, volunteers and child welfare professionals for all the support they provide youth and children in foster care. It can also be a good time to consider how you personally can make a difference in the life of a child in foster care.

According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, in 2018 178 children from Webster County, 45 children from Hamilton County, 38 children from Wright County, 19 children from Pocahontas County, and 47 children from Calhoun County were in foster care. The Court Appointed Special Advocate – CASA – program of North Iowa is a means to directly affect the experience those children have within the system by giving them a voice and ensuring they are heard.

CASAs are trained volunteers who are appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of children that have often been removed from their homes following abuse or neglect. CASAs visit the children at least once a month, traveling to the child’s placement, whether it’s their family home, a foster home, or a group home. They also talk with others involved in the child’s life, including foster parents, social workers, teachers, family service providers, and health professionals.

Connecting with all the different parties involved enables the CASA to collect multiple perspectives of the child’s behavior and adjustment which gives them a more well rounded understanding of the situation they then share with the court. In fact, studies have shown that children in foster care who have a CASA assigned to them receive more services than those without a CASA and are more likely to find a permanent home.

Typically, a CASA volunteer is assigned one case at a time which they stick with and see through to its conclusion. This enables them to focus on the case, get to know the child, and really become a resource. When families are involved with the juvenile court system, they work with multiple lawyers, social workers, foster parents and service providers; a carousel of rotating officials. Court-appointed attorneys and social workers can only do so much, as their caseloads are often unreasonably high.

However, no matter how many lawyers, foster parents or social workers are involved, the CASA is that one person who is a constant for the child, family, and judge to rely on. For example, one of our cases had five foster homes, three different schools, two DHS workers, and two family services workers, but only one CASA throughout. For a child who never new consistent love and support, that is a very big deal.

Volunteers serving as CASAs can expect to give on average anywhere from 5 to 10 hours a month to fulfill their responsibilities. This fluctuates, though. When first assigned a case, the CASA will spend more time making contact with everyone involved and getting themselves up to speed on the situation, but once they have been working the case for a bit, they can settle into a manageable routine. Also, once assigned, they are also asked to stay with the case until its close which can sometimes take a year or more.

To become a CASA, a potential volunteer will undergo 30 hours of preservice training and a background check. They also do 12 hours a year of continuing education.

For more information about volunteering with CASA, contact me, Crystal Engstrom, program coordinator, at 866-923-1088 or email me at crystal.engstrom@dia.iowa.gov. You can also visit the state website www.iamforthechildiowa.com.

Crystal Engstrom is a program coordinator with CASA, with offices in Fort Dodge and Mason City.

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