CASA: Program that advocates for kids could use a few good volunteers

Melissa Wilson holds Kaylee Cuevas, 4, and three-week-old Josie Gonzales, as David Gonzales embraces them at their home in Yakima, Wash., on Friday, July 27, 2018. Wilson is a recovering addict and is in drug court after 15 months' of sobriety. Today, the family and CASA volunteers are working together to create a family bond. Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic.

When children are abused or neglected and removed from their home, a group of volunteers helps make sure their voices are heard in court.

Yakima County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate Program represents more than 500 children a year. But volunteers are scarce and children aren’t getting all the attention they need, program officials said.

Since January, CASA has served 406 children, with 25 volunteers working with 66 of them. To make up the difference, the program’s four full-time staff members have taken 85 cases each.

“We can’t give each case all the attention it deserves when each staff member has 70 to 80 cases. We can’t give the kid justice,” CASA Program coordinator Keith Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson said staff members should be supporting volunteers, not taking most of the cases. He said having one volunteer for every case is the goal.

This makes sense when you look at what an advocate does.

When a child enters the court system, a judge appoints an advocate, who serves as the voice of the child. The advocate investigates the child’s case and creates a report that is presented to the judge.

Advocates try to learn as much about the child as possible. They go to the child’s school, oversee family visitation, talk to therapists and police officers, and more.

While social workers and foster parents come and go, in many cases an advocate is the only person who stays with the child through the case. The entire process takes 18 months on average.

Supporting families

CASA volunteers don’t just help the children; they can help the whole family, too.

CASA program coordinator Dulce Morales has been helping the family of Melissa Wilson and David Gonzales since 2015. They have two children, Kayleen Cuevas, 4, and Josie Gonzales, 3 weeks. David Gonzales was released from prison in April 2017; Wilson is a recovering addict who has 15 months of sobriety and is in drug court.

Gonzales said CASA has allowed them to create the family they always wanted.

“This is new for us,” Wilson said. “We both never had this growing up. We are free.”

Volunteers

Stephen Merz, 64, has been volunteering for three years. He said the work is difficult and not for everyone.

“It’s difficult to hear their stories and know about their struggles,” he said. “It’s heart-wrenching. But I always think that if it’s hard for me, imagine what it’s like for them. That’s what keeps me grounded.”

Merz, a retired East Valley Elementary School principal, said he’s helped 15 children through the program. The youngest was 2 months and the oldest was 12.

“If I get the chance to make a little bit of a difference and make their lives a little better, that’s what I get out of it. It’s not about me, it’s about the kids,” Merz said. “My greatest satisfaction is seeing an outcome that is beneficial to the kids.”

Merz said there are many more cases than there are CASA volunteers and help is needed.

In January, the CASA Program received a $500,000 grant from the federal government under the Victims of Crime Act. The funding allowed the organization to hire three people who are working to increase volunteer numbers.

“The most important thing we’re looking for is people who care about kids,” said Christine Annen, a CASA Program coordinator.

Antonia Mancinelli, 52, has been a volunteer for 10 years. In that time, she’s helped more than 16 children. She said the job requires a special person who is empathetic to what the child is going through and patient enough to stay with the case. She said staying until the end is important for children, because it means they have one more person with them, and its important for volunteers because they get to see the outcome.

“In my first case, I had to leave because I cried so much at the end. It was so heartwarming,” Mancinelli said. “The end story is the most incredible story you’ll ever have.”

Staff photographer Amanda Ray contributed to this report.

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