Weekly Feature

2012-07-18 / Local News

CASA provides a voice for children


A court-appointed special advocate may be the only constant in the life of a child navigating the child welfare system, said Jodi Johnson.

She’s the director of Erie County Court-Appointed Special Advocates, which provides advocates for neglected and abused children in the courts.

Erie County CASA is staffed by two paid employees, Johnson and her assistant, and about 45 volunteers, who are currently assisting about 120 children.

There are well more than 1,000 children in foster care in Erie County, said Johnson.

Volunteers must go through background checks and about 30 hours of training, said Johnson. They must also be 21 or older and have a high school diploma or GED.

Once their training is complete, they are sworn in by an Erie County Family Court judge and assigned a case.

Their mission is to speak for the best interests of the children in the courts. They typically meet with a child’s teachers, guidance counselors, therapists and others to make sure the children are doing well and are receiving all the assistance they need, she said.

Erie County CASA asks for a time commitment of at least one year and tries to have the same advocate work with a child throughout an entire case.

“We are very typically the person in the room who knows the most about the child,” Johnson said.

Children can be part of the CASA program from birth through age 21.

CASA is a national organization, said Johnson. The Erie County branch recently came under the umbrella of the Mental Health Association of Erie County Inc.

Erie County CASA is holding a fundraiser, CASA Cosmic Bowling, at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at Transit Lanes, 7850 Transit Road, Clarence.

Tickets are $20 per bowler or $100 for a five-person team. Each attendee will get two games with music and black lights, shoe rental, pizza, wings, salad and soft drinks, and a cash bar will be available. There will also be a Chinese auction.

CASA receives funding from the New York State Unified Court System, but funding was cut by 27 percent this year and last, said Johnson.

Proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward general operating expenses, she said.

Volunteers are sought and a training class will be held in August at the CASA headquarters at 999 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. To learn more about volunteering, sign up for bowling or donate an auction item, contact Johnson at johson@eriemha.org or 886-1242, ext. 318.

Carol Lee Grady of Amherst has been volunteering with Erie County CASA for 19 years. She saw an advertisement for the program shortly after graduating from college.

“I looked at it, and I thought, ‘That’s for me,’” she said. “These children — you just can’t help feel for them and what they’ve been through.”

She’s been working on one case involving five siblings for 12 years.

“If they have a problem, they call me,” she said, adding that it’s a privilege to be able to help.

People have no idea how many children are in the system, said Grady.

When asked what she thought would happen to them if advocates were not available, she said “they would fall through the cracks of the social system”— not intentionally but because of how overloaded it is.

Grady said those who want to invest in the welfare of children should consider becoming a volunteer.

“I would tell them there’s nothing more rewarding — just give it a try,” she said.

Williamsville resident Donna Perna learned about Erie County CASA from a colleague.

“One of the things that I so like about this program is we are there solely for the child,” she said.

She tries to see the teenager she advocates two or three times per week and also calls him to maintain contact. Some cases require less frequent contact, so volunteers are needed even if they have less time available, she said.

“Even one day a week will make a huge difference in these children’s lives,” she said.

She’s found that the children are in unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

“What we do is help them maybe take control of that situation through whatever way possible,” she said. “If we can help these children get into a place that is safe for them ... they ultimately become productive adults in our society.”

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