Photos by Matt ChristyJudge Thomas Alevizos, far left, and Magistrate Jonathon Forker, far right, welcomed nine new volunteers into the CASA ranks.
La PORTE — Family Advocates is bolstering their Court Appointed Special Advocate program with the addition of nine new volunteers who were sworn in last week.
CASA volunteers serve as advocates for children in the court system, assigned to neglect or abuse cases by a judge. Using knowledge they gather through the process, CASA volunteers inform the judge about the child’s needs and what they believe will be the best permanent home for the child.
“I really do believe the outcomes for the children and the families are much better with CASA than before we had the CASA volunteers,” said Magistrate Jonathon Forker, who is the magistrate for juvenile cases.
Forker addressed the new volunteers before they were sworn in, telling them to never be afraid of sharing their opinions as often times CASA volunteers may be the only constant in a child’s life and be the only one considering their best interest.
“Their prospective can be so much different than anyone else involved in the case. They can provide extremely valuable information to the court that the court might not otherwise have had,” he said.
La Porte County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Alevizos, who was described as the “umbrella” over the CASA cases, thanked the volunteers for trying their hand at this work. It is not a pretty lot, he said, and he won’t blame any of them if they burn out.
“I’m glad you’re willing to take a shot at it,” he said.
Despite the new additions to their ranks, Family Advocates CEO Karen Biernacki said there are still far too many children without any advocates going through the court system in La Porte County.
Currently, there are 281 children in the courts. Biernacki said 165 of those children currently have no advocate and are on their waiting list. While the nine volunteers will help some of those children on the waiting list, many more are still in need.
“It really takes someone who sees what is happening around them and really wants to change the future for a child. We provide the training and the support, so really anyone can do it,” she said.
CASA volunteers must complete a 30-hour pre-service training. While initially Biernacki said CASA volunteers may need to devote up to five hours a week at the beginning of a case, most of the time outside of court is set by the volunteer.
Biernacki added they are always looking for more variety in their volunteers and to have people from different backgrounds.
“We always need Latino volunteers, African-American volunteers, we need men. Most volunteer programs you get a lot of women who come out to volunteer, so the more diversity the better we can match them with the kids,” she said.
Children assisted through the program can be age 0-18. Volunteers have a say in which child they represent.
For Patricia Baxter, one of the new volunteers sworn in and also the new CASA volunteer coordinator, it was the mission of helping children which drew her to take up the cause.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have two very successful children and if I can use any of those skills to help another child succeed, then that is my goal,” she said.
For more information on how to volunteer or to find an application, go to lpfamilyadvocates.com.