Court-appointed advocates help kids in need

Each year, nearly 800,000 children are placed in the foster care system nationwide. These children find themselves homeless and are often the victims of abuse, violence or abandonment through no fault of their own. When this happens, county judges must decide their fate.

In Montgomery County, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program was developed to match these children with adult advocates who will stay with them throughout the time they are in the system.

According to Jane Novick, the CASA program manager, the CASAs are often the only stable force in a child’s life. The local program currently has 90 volunteers.

“CASA is a national program started in Seattle by a judge in 1977,” Novick said. “It was developed originally to ensure that juvenile court judges got all the information they needed to make decisions for the best interest of the children in the system.”

In the 1980s, Montgomery County Juvenile Judges Anthony Capizzi and Nick Kuntz brought the CASA program to the local area, with the intention of building a program to help give children in the court system some stability.

“The goal is to have our CASAs remain neutral,” Novick said. “Often, they are the only neutral party in the courtroom and they investigate, facilitate and advocate for the children.”

CASA volunteers also develop close relationships with the children and remain with them until someone is granted legal custody, the child returns to the parent or is put up for adoption. They serve as the “eyes and ears” of the judge and continually gather relevant information about the child and family.

“At the end of the day the CASA is expected to give recommendations,” Novick said. “They give their opinions on whether they think a child should go back to the biological family or should stay in foster care, for example.”

Novick emphasized that these are only recommendations and that the magistrate ultimately makes the decision. But judges take what the CASA volunteers say very seriously because they know the work they have done with each case.

“When a new CASA starts, they are expected to shadow another CASA for a few cases,” Novick said. “Each CASA is assigned a staff person as well who will help them along the way. And CASAs are expected to visit the child at least one every month.”

Novick, who worked as an international economist in New York before coming to Dayton in 1991, has experience working as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) for Montgomery County Juvenile Court. She has a developmentally delayed daughter and said she has always felt the need to advocate for her.

“I’m passionate about this program and it allows me to work with vulnerable populations,” Novick said. “My background includes working with many different people and that has helped me be more aware and sensitive of others.”

Montgomery County was one of the early adopters of the CASA program, which is court based and as such get funding through the county. Other programs are nonprofits and must raise funds to support their CASAs. CASA volunteers must be at least 21 years of age and cannot be a foster parent in the county. They must also pass background checks and complete 30 hours of training, half of which is in person and the other half online. There are also homework assignments.

“I’ve heard so many positive stories from our volunteers,” Novick said. “I have one CASA who was a special education teacher and administrator. She loves working with kids with special needs and is bringing her professional skills to this program.”

Among the CASAs in Dayton is also a retired pediatrician who advocates for children who may be over medicated. Novick said many volunteers feel like it’s an extension of their professional work and they love helping children who may not otherwise have good role models.

“A lot of the CASAs love the fact that the judges and magistrates are strong advocates for the kids as well,” Novick said. “So many of them get lost in the system and don’t have anyone. The CASA is the one person who is there for the children from the beginning to end and won’t let them get lost. With all the substance abuse going on, kids are getting bounced around a lot. These kids know they can count on their CASAs.”

Novick said the program always needs volunteers – both men and women of all backgrounds. Training in many topics is provided, from substance abuse to trauma in children. And there are other ways to help if individuals can’t make the full commitment to become CASAs. For more information contact Novick at 937-225-5492.

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