BY JENNY DEVRIES
Drake CASA hosted its first informational meeting for students wanting to learn more about helping abused and neglected children.
According to their website, court-appointed special advocates or CASAs are representatives who work with state and local programs as volunteer advocates to ensure abused or neglected children in the U.S. can have a safe, permanent home.
“We need help,” said Drake CASA’s advisor Claire Gee. “We need better marketing strategies, but we really need more CASAs.”
There are 1,500 children in Iowa’s system, and a CASA representative is present in only five percent of cases, according to Gee.
Gee and Drake CASA members Natalie Deerr and Alex Klein hosted the meeting to raise awareness about CASA’s goals and to spread the message about the organization on campus.
A CASA representative is assigned to a case by the presiding judge. The CASA gets to know everyone involved in the kids’ lives and provide an impartial perspective on their behalf.
“Our priority is to help the parents so we can return the kids to their care,” Gee said. “But if we can’t help the parents, we have to find the most stable replacement as soon as possible.”
In Polk County, the majority of cases are neglect because of drugabuse,Geeexplained.A lot is expected of the parents in order to make sure they can regain custody.
Every three months, there is a court hearing during which the judge is updated on the case. Between the hearings, CASAs attend family team meetings where the group assesses what progress has been made and what needs to improve.
It is also court-mandated that CASAs see the kids once a month and interact with the children face-to-face.
As Deerr notes, the constant check-ins are stressful for the parents, and they present significant resistance to the process.
“There’s a lot of resistance to gettinginvolvedwithsomeof the services or the workers who come in and observe,” Deerr said. “From the visits, parents question why someone is in their home telling them how to do their job.”
Gee, a CASA and a parent, understands the stress.
“I think that resistance comes from fear because the state is an awful parent,” Gee said. “The structure is not pleasant, and there’s pressure coming from a lot of different places.”
The pressures include court-mandated treatment for substance abuse, considered “extremely intensive” by Deerr. Parents must also attend a specific number of meetings a week, see treatment counselors, find a job and find time to be with their kids.
For Klein, trusting the system to do its job and the CASAs to help the process along is crucial for the success of the case.
“The soonerparents engage in services, the sooner the situation improves,” Klein said. 85 percent of kids in these cases don’t have a CASA, which is why CASAs are adequately trained to improve the situation. A major change to the program in Polk County is the recently instituted Trauma Informed Care (TI), which is a training program designed to help babies and infants.
“Some people might think babies are clueless in these situations,” Gee said. “But every move you make changes their brain chemistry, and if they’re missing key parental interaction, it affects them in the future.”
Gee also pointed out that the systemcreatesacycleofabuse, so efforts made for all CASAs to be trauma-informed are so that there is not another generation of trauma.
The training is also important in helping CASAs navigate complex cases that might not have been addressed in the original training.
“You’re trained to act as a participant observer not actively taking over someone’s role but a reporter,” Klein said. “The TI is helpful, and the overall training is a rewarding experience.”
Klein was able to enjoy the rewarding experience through the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority on campus and her job. For Deerr, the reason is personal.
“My siblings are adopted, and looking at their case, I wonder if they wouldn’t have jumped from home to home if they’d had a CASA,” Deerr said. “I first heard about CASA through my job, but I’ve always had a passion for all things children’s rights, and helping kids like my siblings.”
If the concept of a CASA is intimidating for students, Gee encourages any kind of involvement.
“Volunteer to support CASA through social media, or support Drake CASAs events,” Gee said. “Anything you can do will make a difference.”
For students who want to learn more, visit CASAIowa.org, or attend the next CASA meeting on Monday, March 21, at 6 p.m. in the Olmsted Mezzanine.
Kappa Alpha Theta will also be hosting an informational event, Cupcakes for CASA, encouraging students to share a photo on social media in exchange for a cupcake. The event will be on March 23 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Olmsted Breezeway.