County officials are scrambling to find funding to keep the Court Appointed Special Advocate program at its current level. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

County officials are scrambling to find funding to keep the Court Appointed Special Advocate program at its current level. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam searching for funding for Court Appointed Special Advocate program

State grant that supported work was not renewed

PORT ANGELES — A state grant that has significantly bolstered Clallam County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program has dried up, and Clallam County officials are now “scrambling” to find funding for the program that supports children who are involved in the court system through no fault of their own.

The 20-month Victims of Crimes Act grant funded 2.5 positions that helped the program go from 19 Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in 2017, serving a third of the children in dependency court, up to 62 volunteers currently, with another 13 volunteers finishing up background checks. The program is expected to grow to more than 80 CASAs by this fall.

County officials said they were given about 30-days notice that the grant from the state Department of Commerce would not be renewed, creating uncertainty for those employees and the sustainability of the program.

Those employees support CASAs, especially new CASAs, who advocate for the county’s most vulnerable children in dependency court. They learn about each situation and tell the judge what is best for each child.

Funding ended June 30.

Jody Jacobson, director of Juvenile and Family Services, said Tuesday she had believed the grant would be renewed and hadn’t planned for what would happen if it ended.

The original grant was secured before Jacobson became the director in 2018.

“That’s on me. That’s a lesson for me as a new director,” she said. “I should have prepared to lose the grant.”

The Department of Commerce awarded the grant to 22 agencies out of 77 applications.

She said all the signs seemed to show the county would be successful in securing the grant again. The grant had allowed the county to do a “fabulous job recruiting” and the county had support from the Department of Commerce, she said.

The grant had funded two full-time CASA volunteer coordinators and one part-time administrative specialist.

Searching for solutions

Jacobson and other county officials have been working for the past few weeks to find both short-term and long-term funding solutions.

Jacobson said the department is in the process of applying for another grant to support the program, but won’t know until October if the application is successful.

“We still have some questions as to how we’re going to move forward through this,” she said.

Commissioner Mark Ozias said the short-term funding solution has been “evolving on a daily basis as we’ve been scrambling.”

For now, the three positions have become temporary positions without benefits and the employees will need to reapply for their jobs, which have been posted on the county’s website.

Those positions, including benefits, would cost $196,878 annually.

Jacobson said that on average there are about 200 active cases per year. During the grant period, 132 children had a CASA volunteer assigned to them and there are currently 65 unassigned children right now.

State law requires the appointment of a CASA or an attorney.

“That’s 80 unpaid staff that we have that are providing an average 15 hours per month,” Jacobson said. “That’s a tremendous amount of hours that are being donated to the county to work these cases. If we can have two staff to support 80 [CASAs] and 160 kids, that’s a great value.”

County Interim Administrator Rich Sill said Monday that staff are preparing a $40,000 “debatable budget emergency” for the Board of County Commissioners to consider that would fund the positions through September. He said they would take it up within the “next week or so.”

Sill said both the county and the state could have planned better. He said the county needs to look at how it uses grants and plan better for when those grants expire.

“It doesn’t do any good to be reactive,” Sill said. “We need to look at the whole thing and say what are we going to do in terms of processing grants. Up to this point in time it has been standard process and procedure that when a grant ends, that position ends.”

‘This touched my heart’

During the June 25 Board of County Commissioners meeting, several people spoke about the program, with one woman in tears as she described its importance. The topic was not on the agenda.

Jessica McKenzie, a foster parent, spoke about how CASAs have helped the children she has cared for. She credited the program with helping a child’s grandparents gain custody, instead of parents who were struggling with drug addiction.

“Their sole existence is to advocate for children and there’s no one else to do that,” McKenzie said. “CASAs are the only people who only have the kid in mind.”

“This touched my heart,” said Commissioner Bill Peach. “I’m interested in taking action.”

Peach suggested that the county allocate up to $60,000 from the General Fund to fund the program through the end of the year — a suggestion that no commissioners objected to.

Ozias said that commissioners have always expressed support for the program and said he does not want CASA’s growth to be reversed.

“A lot of this effort funded by this grant has been to expand the CASA program so that it can meet the needs in the community,” Ozias said. “Having to take a step back from that is something that none of us will want to see.”

Ozias used this situation as an example of why the county needs to find more stable funding sources for its programs across all departments.

“Anytime we have a program that is built primarily or completely on grant funding, which is unstable, we are challenged to build some stability into the system,” Ozias said.

During the June 25 meeting, CASA Coordinator Valerie Brooks told commissioners that 85 percent of the dependency cases in Clallam County are related to opioid use, while the remaining 15 percent are associated with mental health issues or abuse and neglect.

She said she was appreciative that the three commissioners were supportive of the program, but highlighted that the program has struggled to get adequate funding throughout the years.

“It’s important for the board to know that on multiple occasions we have asked for appropriate funding for the CASA program over my 13 years,” Brooks said. “Many of our budget requests have included that and we have been denied every time.”

She said in order for the program to meet national standards it needs 4.5 employees, which it had during the grant period. She said that people require specific training and that the program cannot afford to lose the people currently in those positions.

“Our program is one of the most recognized programs in the state of Washington,” Brooks said. “That will go away if these people aren’t retained.”

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].

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