CASA Full of Hope 

Missoula children’s advocacy program hopes to grow

Missoula graduate student Scott Sanderson received his first CASA assignment via a phone call. A teenager was in custody at a local mental health facility and no one knew just what to do with him. Suddenly, the boy’s problems were Sanderson’s problems. Now, months later, the boy is in treatment as a ward of the state and Sanderson is his buffer, translator and mentor as the system moves slowly along, trying to provide help for the troubled teen.

“He calls me often and we talk about little things—how he’s doing, what he likes or what scares him,” Sanderson says. “I’m a connection for him.”

Scott and 34 other Missoula-area residents are a thin line of volunteers who stretch out to form a safety net to catch abused and neglected children as they tumble into the legal system—often as victims of adult indifference, ignorance and cruelty. He is a CASA volunteer.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate and 35 Missoula-area residents wear the name with quiet pride and dedication. CASA volunteers are advocates—appointed by one of the four local district judges—whose only interest in a case is the best interest of the child or children involved. Part investigator, part overseer, at all times an advocate, they are the eyes and ears of the presiding judge and report directly to him about what is best for the child.

“What CASA volunteers see and say and report is very important to the court,” says CASA program director Ann O’Connell. “CASA recommendations to the court are focused on the children, not on anyone else involved.”

CASA volunteers have sweeping powers once they are appointed to a case. They have access to all records pertaining to a child and can interview everyone involved before they report back to a judge with a recommendation for what they believe is in the child’s best interest.

“It can be pretty frightening to see a judge perhaps ready to take an action that I didn’t think was a good idea for a child,” says Ed Higgins, a UM law student. “I made a different recommendation in court and the judge did listen and then did as I suggested.”

“The local judges are very supportive,” says Carol Westerland, a retired nurse. “Judge [John] Larson started the program here and is a great supporter of it.”

Jim Denny, a retired school principal, has been with Missoula CASA for five years. He has been involved in many difficult cases and won a national J.C. Penney volunteerism award two years ago. But that isn’t why he’s involved.

“You do it for the kids,” Denny explains, but sometimes, he adds, it can be difficult. Just because someone is a bad parent doesn’t mean that they don’t love their child or the child doesn’t love them. “In some cases children don’t appreciate the decisions we arrive at. Children can be most protective of even the worst abusive parents.”

But there are successes. Denny recently helped place six children from one family in adopted homes with extended family members. The children are safe with people who love and want them. “They will be nurtured,” Denny says. “It’s what we’re all about.”

Missoula CASA, with a staff of two and the three dozen volunteers, is just one of 720 CASAs spread throughout all 50 states. CASA has more than 42,000 national volunteers. O’Connell said the networking capabilities expand constantly. A Missoula CASA worker can call a CASA in another state and receive information on a child who moved to Missoula or ask that a CASA volunteer check on a child who has moved away from Missoula to ensure that they are still receiving proper care.

“Sometimes CASA is requested by someone from a school or by a parent. Attorneys can request a CASA volunteer,” Westerland says. “Most of the time a judge decides a case needs a CASA because they want information to determine if a child’s needs are being met. Sometimes we are referred by mental health workers to a child who is already in custody.”

More than 95 percent of the cases are civil in nature and therefore closed to public scrutiny—to protect the confidentiality of the children. Most of the time—even when parental rights are terminated—no criminal charges are ever filed. O’Connell calls the situation a two-edged sword. It protects the children but also allows the parents, who may be guilty of severe abuse or neglect, to go unnoticed by society.

But all CASA volunteers have their reasons for taking part. For Westerland it is the memory of a grandmother who received visiting rights and is now able to spend time with a grandchild. For Denny and others it is a commitment because someone must. “I do it because it has to be done,” Denny says. “We want to be successful in every case but we have to be satisfied with the ones where we think we are.”

And all the CASA volunteers acknowledge the responsibility they carry when they submit a report to a judge. They must go through a 35-hour training session and participate in a mock trial with Judge Larson to become CASA members. A new training session starts the end of January and more volunteers are desperately needed, O’Connell says. “We feel like we could use all 42,000 volunteers right here in Missoula,” she adds.

CASA volunteers must complete an application, go through a background check and be able to give an average of five to 15 hours a month to the program. Anyone interested can contact O’Connell at 542-1208 for additional information.

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