CASA for Kids, Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that recruits, screens, trains and supports community volunteers who advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected children in juvenile deprived court in Payne and Logan County.
“CASA stands for court appointed special advocates and what it really is is a person who’s there for a child in foster care. They’ve been removed from their home due to abuse or neglect and they’re in the court system to either be reunified or to be adopted,” Kristy Kitsman, executive director, said.
Currently in its fifth year in Logan County, CASA operates solely on volunteers. In order to be come a CASA, applicants must be at least 21 years of age with no criminal background. It is not a requirement to live in Logan County and CASA has volunteers that choose to devote their time to Guthrie despite living in other cities. Kitsman said CASA volunteers are split about 50/50 with half working full-time and half being retired and there’s not a one size fits all description of what a CASA volunteer looks like.
“The volunteer is the one who goes out every single month, most of the time a lot more than just once a month, and sees these kids and really gets to know them. They are the one person who is just there every single time in the court, talking about what’s in the best interest of the child, regardless of the agenda. Kids have attorneys and they look at what the child wants; CASA looks at what the kid wants and what’s in their best interest,” Kitsman said.
Since July, when their fiscal year began, CASA has served 196 children in both Payne and Logan County. Right now, between the two counties, CASA has about 70 kids that aren’t being served.
“There’s no agenda for a CASA. They’re there to serve this child. They advocate at the schools for them to get counseling. Really, just looking at the whole child and deciding what could we do for that child to help them get through this,” Kitsman said.
Heather Houle, case supervisor, said the biggest myth about volunteering for CASA is that people don’t have enough time.
“One good thing about CASA is that you can set your hours on when you want to go visit the kids,” Houle said. “Everybody always thinks that they don’t have enough time to be a CASA but that’s not the case. You can make time for these kids. I mean, these are kids that are in our community that need our community members to help out.”
Kitsman looks at the numbers every month and puts them in the system and said that 10 hours a month is the average for a CASA volunteer but sometimes it’s one and a half, two or even 40. A lot of it is dependent on how often you go to court. For instance, at the beginning of a case you go to court a little bit more often.
All volunteers are required to meet the “big three” monthly requirements: seeing the child, DHS and court supervisor.
“We do 30 hours of training and you have a court supervisor who walks you through everything. You don’t have to have court or legal experience but you will learn it,” Kitsman said.
The fact that CASA is its own entity separate from the judicial system makes them more accessible. Sharon Watts, CASA volunteer, said CASA is a win-win for the court system because they are really boots on the ground and DHS just does not have the time or the resources. Carolyn Kornegay, CASA volunteer, said once the family fully realizes that you are a volunteer and you do not represent DHS, you’re not getting a paycheck—and whatever you do is from your heart—they have a completely different attitude.
The common thread that all CASA volunteers have is a passion for helping children but as CASA volunteer Nancy Nichols emphasized, they’re also passionate about the community.
“Our community benefits from this program because it helps to break the cycle. A lot of the parents grew up in the system and we’re trying to stop that,” Nichols said.
Diane Rush, case supervisor, said this is something that people are passionate about and they make time. There are also other opportunities, such as board positions and fundraising, that people can do if they’d prefer not to work directly with the children.
“We’re just regular people like everybody else. You don’t have to be rich or poor or college educated or anything—you just have to have a heart for helping children,” Deonna Stanton, CASA volunteer, said.
“One thing that makes it easy to go to work, so to speak, is the value that attorneys and especially Judge Duel, see in a CASA,” Chris Hirzel, CASA volunteer, said. “Even as a volunteer, your role is so powerful and they value that, which makes it really easy to work overtime or to work on your case. Your opinion more than matters and it’s not that way in every county, or so I’ve heard. We’re very lucky to have people that value this. It probably starts with Judge Duel.”
CASAs must be requested by an attorney, DHS, district attorney, or judge. Kitsman said in Payne County, their assistant district attorney took over as a judge, and because he knew about CASA— now every single case he requests a CASA.
“It’s great because he recognizes the need but we are juggling a lot. We need to get more volunteers in.”
The next volunteer training in Guthrie is on March 30. For those interested, please call CASA at 405-293-6200, drop by their office at 115 N. Broad Street, or apply online via website at casaforkids. com. All applicants will be notified within 24 hours of submitting their application.