Gbolahan is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a champion for families under the supervision of Child Protective Services (CPS).
CASA of Travis County is the organization that screens and trains volunteers to be Court Appointed Special Advocates, a designation that permits a volunteer to not only spend time with a child, but also gather information from teachers, doctors, therapists, and family members.
While in CPS care the advocate is often the only consistent person in the child’s life. CASA asks volunteers to commit to the duration of a case, typically around 17 months, according to Callie Langford, the organization’s director of communications. During that time, the advocate visits with the child a minimum of once a month and gets to know their desires, wants, needs and triumphs.
You will literally be helping a judge make crucial decisions about the life of a child
The advocate also learns the parents’ situation and identifies resources that could help them better care for their children. A mother or father may be in financial need, suffering from an illness, or simply lack a support system. Poverty and drug use are major causes of neglect and abuse, but neglect is the more prevalent issue, according to Langford.
Every three or four months the case goes to court and the advocate will use what she’s learned to represent the child’s best interest. “You will literally be helping a judge make crucial decisions about the life of a child,” said Langford, “about the life of a family.”
Almost 80% of the CPS cases aided by CASA in 2017 resulted in children reunited with their parent(s) or placed with another family member. Another 6% were placed permanently with a non-family member. The remaining children either aged out of the system or their cases were dismissed.
African Americans made up only 4% of these volunteer heroes
Although 25% of the children represented by CASA last year were African American, African Americans made up only 4% of these volunteer heroes. While an ethnic match is not mandatory, Gbolahan sees cultural similarity as a benefit because it gives the child “a sense of affirmation that there are people who look like me, who are successful and positive and are going to be consistent in my life.” This may be even more important because a lot of the foster families are white and may not be equipped to meet the child’s cultural needs.
CASA wants to increase the number of volunteers of color and hopes to at least achieve parity with the demographics of the county. Anyone can apply to CASA and join this cadre of heroes. Applicants submit to a background check and get 39 hours of training, which covers everything from dealing with kids who encounter trauma to preparing for court.
Susan Graham, an electrical engineer and newly minted advocate started the process in July and by September had completed the training and been assigned her first case.
I’m getting more out of it than I’m giving to it
Before volunteering, Graham, who is married and has two teenage daughters, was concerned about the time requirements of 15-20 hours a month. She looked for periods of discretionary time in her life, things like TV watching. “I look at swapping that time out for something like this,” Graham said, “that fundamentally means a lot to me.” She added, “So far I’m getting more out of it than I’m giving to it, as far as healing and mending some of my own relationships.”
You too can become a hero to a family in need and learn things to improve your life in the process.
If you are looking for a meaningful and enriching volunteer opportunity in the Austin area and you care about the best interest of children, volunteering with CASA may be right for you.