PORT ANGELES — About two-thirds of kids going through family court proceedings in Clallam County do not have a Court Appointed Special Advocate to represent their best interests in court.
The CASA program in Clallam County has 19 active volunteers who are handling about 58 cases, or about one third of the approximately 175 children who are in the juvenile court system through no fault of their own.
Valerie Brooks, CASA program coordinator in Clallam County, said the program needs about 80 volunteers to be able to meet the needs of the children.
“I don’t think anything truly impacts the child more than what the volunteers are doing,” she said.
“They are the only people in these kiddos’ lives who are not paid to be there — and the kids know that.”
Among those volunteers is Mary Lawrence, who has been a CASA for 13 years.
She meets with children at least once a month, learns as much as she can about them by interviewing family, teachers, foster parents and other people in their lives, and advocates on their behalf in court.
“I feel the judge listens to your point of view, which is important,” she said. “You really do help with the kids’ needs, where maybe an agency is too busy.”
Her goal as a CASA is to ensure kids have a permanent home, whether in foster care, with family or biological parents, and to ensure they have a happy life.
She said when kids are old enough you can talk to them about what they want. In court, she’ll tell commissioners what she feels is best for the kids and what the kids think is best for them — which isn’t always the same thing.
The Clallam County CASA program is actively recruiting volunteers and is hosting an open house from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Clallam County Juvenile &Family Services, 1912 W. 18th St., Port Angeles.
Jefferson County’s Guardian Ad Litem/CASA program is similar, but not nearly as stressed as Clallam County’s said Jefferson County GAL/CASA Coordinator Anne Dean.
“We have been pretty fortunate in that we have not had an extreme shortage of GALs,” she said. She said her program’s 23 volunteers are handling about 30 cases and every case is assigned.
She is always recruiting volunteers and urged people who are interested to call her at 360-385-9190.
Hugh Mullen, who has been a CASA for less than two years in Clallam County, said that CASA volunteers have the power to change a child’s life for the better.
“It’s a great thing to do,” he said. “You can feel a great sense of accomplishment.”
While the goal is to help, the volunteers’ jobs are anything but easy.
He said that while it can be rewarding and fulfilling, dealing with the process can be frustrating and aggravating.
The process is slow and they work the same cases for years, he said.
“It can be very fulfilling, especially when you go to visit these kids and they are happy to see you,” he said. “They know who you are and you’re somebody important in their lives.”
His hope is that biological parents will meet all the requirements needed to bring their family back together.
But at the end of a case, he wants what is best for the kids.
He encourages anyone who wants to make a difference to consider becoming a CASA.
“Making a difference in the life of one child at a time is something anybody can do if they would commit to it,” he said. “It makes a huge difference in that child’s life and that’s where we have to start.”
CASA has three training programs scheduled for this year, including one training program starting Thursday, May 11, another in August and a third in November.
For more information, call Brooks at 360-565-2644.
Jefferson County GAL/CASA has training scheduled for this fall.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].