Arizona’s most vulnerable children are in critical need of child welfare advocates to help them find permanent loving homes.
The number of dependency cases continue to grow each day leaving behind many children who are trying to escape the limbo of an overburdened child welfare system.
KAWC’s Stephanie Sanchez reports on the requirements of the volunteer position and how the volunteer’s work can impact a child’s life.
17-year old Dimon Sanders was placed in Arizona’s foster care system when she was 8 due to abuse and neglect from her parents.
Sanders lived in 13 different foster homes all while seeing a revolving door of people coming in and out her life.
She grew weary and distrustful of those around her.
But she began to develop trust again when she met the one “constant” person in her life-her Court Appointed Special Advocate or also known as CASA.
"I was very skeptical at first because of the people but after we connected she was very different from the people who were in and out. She stepped up and became that role that I needed," Sanders said. "She was like my second mother so any problem that I’d have I would tell her. Anything positive that was going on I would tell her about it.”
CASA volunteers are trained community members whose main purpose is to be the eyes and ears of the family court judge and be the voice of the child.
"That’s exactly what she did," she said. "I was really a shy person so when it came to court she was always there to advocate what I wanted and what I needed from them."
But not all children in the foster care system get the opportunity to be assigned an advocate.
According to the CASA Arizona website, only 1 out of 8 foster children in Arizona have a CASA.
CASA volunteer Susan Steenhard said in Yuma County alone, there are over 300 children with no advocate. As of last count, they have 32 workers.
Steenhard said a child without an advocate stays in the system longer and they are not given the services they need.
“Generally, a lot of our cases deal with parents who usually have a substance abuse problem," she said. "We do have a lot of mental health issues that need to be addressed.”
To become a Court Appointed Special Advocate, you are required to be at least 21 years old, complete a background check, pass a polygraph test, provide references and participate in an interview.
CASA Coordinator Misty Chacala said the interview process can take up to 3 hours.
"We’re really going to look at where you are in your life," Chacala said. "Emotionally, what things have happened in your life that are going to make you a good advocate or maybe you are not emotionally ready.”
You also need to complete a minimum of 30-hours of pre-service training. You need to be available for court appearances and commit to the CASA program until your first case is closed.
"It is not a casual thing that you can do just an hour a week or two hours a week," she said. "You need to have a little bit of flexible schedule because most of the things that you do will be involved Monday through Friday 8 to 5 or 8 to 3 if you have a school age child."
A new CASA worker may start off with a single case. But a seasoned CASA worker like Susan Steenhard may spend up to 70 hours a month working on multiple cases.
The positon is unpaid.
“But when you know that you’ve done even just a small part in making sure that the child has been cared for and ends up in a loving caring home...I would say that’s my paycheck," Steenhard said.
Dimon Sanders was adopted 3 years ago and still keeps in touch with her former CASA worker who made her feel special.
“The main holidays that little kids always looks forward to don’t always get to celebrate it because there isn't enough money in the budget for every kid in the foster care system to get presents," Sanders said. "So a CASA was there for me to feel special on my birthday or on Christmas she would always go out of her way even if it was just a card for me.”
Sanders is now a CASA ambassador and recruiter. She shares her story on how the CASA program changed her life.
She also competes in pageants, goes to dance school and takes online classes.
“She was the motivation in life to keep me in school and not drop out," she said. "And to keep going positive into the houses."