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Expanding the Village

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New CASA program adds extra layer of protection for deprived children

  • Article Image Alt Text
    SOME OF THE ADVOCATES who helped implement the CASA program include, from left: Kelly Lingo, Red Rock Behavioral Health in Kingfi sher; Lisa Copeland, Kingfi sher Community Collaborative and Sooner SUCCESS; Associate District Judge Lance Schneiter; Jeff Tallent, Evolution Foundation executive director, KCC; interested volunteer Beth Schieber; Blair Coughlan, KCC; Nurse Practitioner Rachel Cameron, KCC, and Assistant District Attorney Molly Neuman. [KT&FP Staff Photo]

Beginning sometime next year, some children navigating the juvenile court system will have another advocate looking out for their best interests.

Associate District Judge Lance Schneiter signed an agreement Oct. 31 to implement a county Court Appointed Special Advocates program, a nationwide program of trained volunteers long sought by local mental health professionals, Kingfi sher Community Collaborative, the district attorney’s office and others.

The agreement will create a county satellite CASA program under the auspices of the Garfi eld County Child Advocacy Council Inc., which operates similar programs in Garfield, Blaine, Major, Grant and Woodward counties.

“There are nine counties in the 4th Judicial District and theoretically we could/should do all of them,” executive director of the Garfield County council, said. “In my mind, that’s another reason why Kingfisher is so important.

“If we can do this successfully, maybe those other counties can have programs too.”

Under the agreement, the primarily grant-funded, nonprofi t Garfield County program will provide funding to set up an offi ce in Kingfisher and hire a part-time volunteer coordinator.

Schneiter said he is looking for office space and will meet with county commissioners to see if anything is available in one of the county buildings.

How the Program Works

Once the program is up and running, Schneiter will decide which juvenile court cases require the added assistance of a CASA volunteer, based on requests received from any party to the proceeding.

Each trained volunteer will be assigned to only one family at a time, which in most situations includes only one court case, Wade said.

Volunteers will review the entire court case, meet with the children involved on at least a monthly basis and also have access to information from counselors, doctors, teachers and other professionals involved in the child’s life.

CASA volunteers attend court hearings and also submit written reports to the court, providing additional insights from an objective perspective that the court can use to make decisions affecting the children.

“The hardest thing for me is that every one of these children have been neglected and ignored in some way,” Schneiter said. “This program gives them a voice in the courtroom.”

“For most kids it’s getting their voice back, but for some it’s getting the real story when the kids don’t know what’s best for them,” Neuman said. “They want to go back to their normal even when it’s not in their best interest. CASA workers have the opportunity to observe children in their environment and will have a better perspective about how we can best help them.”

“CASA workers will have the opportunity to observe nonverbal cues – how a child reacts when his parents come into the room, for instance,” Schneiter said. “The more contact you have with the child, the more you’ll recognize the truth of their situation.”

Training, Support Provided

CASA started in the state of Washington and has evolved into a national program that requires each program to operate under the same guidelines, Wade said.

Volunteers fi rst undergo background checks and then are given 30 hours of training under an approved curriculum that is the same in every state.

The Kingfi sher training likely will be offered in a combination of 15 hours online and 15 hours in-person training at a local site.

“We structure the 15 hours of classroom training in five sessions of three hours each,” Wade said. “What the student is studying online that week is then reinforced with the in-person practice.”

An extra day is added at the end for an eight-hour case study where the volunteer trainees will be asked to make recommendations based on the information presented.

“Students seem to really enjoy that day because it encourages them to debate different solutions and they get to know each other,” Wade said.

After the training is completed, the volunteers are sworn in by Schneiter on a juvenile docket day and then are allowed to remain in the courtroom to observe how the judicial process works.

“We ask that they stay to observe for at least two hours or as long as the court is in session,” she said.

After the initial training, volunteers are required to complete 12 hours of continuing education each year, most of which will be offered locally or in a neighboring county, Wade said.

Once assigned to a case, volunteers are assigned a supervisor who provides them with ongoing support and assistance with every facet of their duties, Wade said.

Supervisors will help with writing court reports and will accompany volunteers to each court hearing, usually once every three months or so, Wade said.

Time Commitment

The time commitment after the volunteer is assigned is usually six-10 hours a month, Wade said.

“More time is spent at the beginning of the case as the volunteer is required to read everything that has been written about the case,” she said.

The volunteer must, by law, see the child each month and the program requires volunteers to also meet with their supervisor and the child’s DHS caseworker each month as well.

CASA workers follow each case they are assigned as long as the case remains open and the children are under court supervision.

Once that happens, volunteers may be assigned to a new case.

Wade said the program is now accepting applications for volunteers and is seeking at least six to begin training in January.

Long Time Coming

CASA programs first have to be requested by each county’s sitting judge.

Schneiter credited Neuman, his opponent in the 2018 election that placed him in office, with getting the ball rolling.

“Molly advocated for it and I supported the idea too,” he said. “I was also approached by three different people earlier this year who said they were interested in serving as volunteers.”

Beth Schieber, retired Kingfisher High School teacher who has served on both the Okarche school board and the state school board association is one of those prospective volunteers.

“A fellow member on the state school board association encouraged me to get involved,” Schieber said. “I’ve always been an advocate of education and children and I see this as another way to help.”

Others entities interested in the program included the community collaborative and its various public and private member partners.

“This has been a discussion for years here at our office,” Kelly Lingo of Red Rock Behavioral Health in Kingfi sher said. “I am excited to have this life-changing opportunity for children who have experienced neglect or trauma.”

Jeff Tallent, executive director of the Evolution Foundation, another KCC partner, also met with Schneiter to offer assistance in getting the program started.

“I became involved about four months ago when it surfaced as a real need in the county and since then it has moved really quickly,” he said.

Nurse Practitioner Rachel Cameron, another KCC member who also is a member of the county’s Multidisciplinary Child Abuse Response Team (M-Cart) added: “It takes all of us to protect the kids. I think we have a great team and CASA volunteers will only add to that.”

“We’ve wanted to see this program implemented here for a long time and we’re ready to do what we can to support it and make it successful,” Lisa Copeland, KCC chairperson and Sooner SUCCESS county coordinator, said.

“I like the idea that these children will have another stable presence in their lives,” KCC member Blair Coughlan, another KCC member said.