The CASA court appointed special advocate program in Payne County needs at least 10 solid volunteers to complete training for the important job of advocating for a child or sibling group's best interests as they work their way through the court system.
CASA volunteers speak for the children in court.
Payne County CASA Executive Director Carmen Miller said children involved in the court system can fall through the cracks without someone to focus on them.
Most children needing CASAs are already in the foster care system, although a few might be living with parents or another relative, she said.
CASA trains volunteers to serve as Guardians Ad Litem, court appointed advocates who investigate the situations of children who are thought to be victims of abuse or neglect, and report to the court so it can make an informed decision about what's best for those children.
The next volunteer training is scheduled for April 10 and 11.
CASA volunteers talk to the child they're assigned to but might also talk to friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, doctors and the parents to gather the information they need to make reports to the court about the child's best interest.
Miller said CASAs have to remember that the program works closely with the Department of Human Services and shares it goal of reunifying the family if possible.
Because that's the goal, a CASA might need to check in with parents to see how they're progressing on any requirements the court has set for getting their children back.
Understanding that standards of behavior, cleanliness and overall living conditions can vary and still meet the standard of Minimum Suffi cient Care is a tough one for some people who go through CASA training, she said.
CASA staff is there to help volunteers when they have questions, doubts or are struggling with a case.
The training for volunteers also helps prepare them to handle the challenges involved in working cases involving abused or neglected children.
Miller said most of the cases in Payne County are usually generated from charges of neglect rather than abuse.
CASA's 35 hours of training includes extensive reading, court observation and independent study, along with classroom time.
Topics covered include understanding the role of a CASA volunteer, recognizing and reporting child abuse, information gathering, interviewing and confidentiality requirements and understanding children and families as well as factors like substance abuse, poverty and cultural differences that can affect a child's level of care.
Volunteers also learn about working with DHS and the Juvenile Court system and how to write reports for the court.
At the end of the process, those volunteers who have made it through will be sworn in by Judge Stephen Kistler and assigned cases.
Miller said a person who wants to volunteer but can't make their schedule work with all the currently scheduled sessions should still consider it because CASA staff can often work with someone to complete individual training or independent study.
CASA volunteer training is completely free and volunteers have up to six months to complete it, although Miller hopes people will move through it more quickly so they can start working cases.
She said there are currently eight cases waiting for trained volunteers. Some involve one child and others involve siblings.
Having a Guardian Ad Litem is important for kids because it makes their experience better when they have someone looking out and advocating for them.
They're more likely to get services they need or might not be moved as much while in foster care, she said. Their cases also move through the court system and toward a resolution faster.
Miller said volunteers must be at least 21 and they have to go through a screening process that includes a background check and interview.
Once CASA volunteers are trained, they'll be offered the chance to review cases and accept or reject them. The interview process helps staff learn what types of cases would be good matches for each volunteer, she said.
"Most of the people just have a heart for kids and that's why they do it," she said. "CASA's are important because they're the only party to the case with the power to recommend anything that's in the best interest of the child. No one else can do that."
For more information about becoming a CASA volunteer call 405)624-2242, go to www.casaforkids.com or stop by the CASA offi ce at 315 W. Sixth Ave, Suite 205