August 02, 2012BERLIN - Stacia Roberge is well known in the area as a former director of the Berlin Main Street Program and former owner of Rumorz, a Main Street dress shop. She is now a recruiter for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) and is hoping her local contacts will help increase the number of CASA volunteers, there is a big need in the Berlin area.
CASA volunteers are Guardian ad Litems (GAL) as well (see separate story), but are unpaid, only handle child abuse and neglect cases and only one or two at a time. CASA was started in Seattle Washington by a judge in the 1970's, but in New Hampshire it was begun in 1989 by Marcia Sink from the Goffstown area. She had a foster child for whom a GAL had been appointed. This GAL had never even visited with the child, yet stood before a judge and talked about what was best for this child.
She felt there had to be a better way.
She called the national CASA organization looking for a CASA volunteer, but was told they didn't have a group in New Hampshire, then was asked, would she like to start one.
Now N.H. has over 400 volunteer working in every court in the state. But there are only 15 CASA volunteers in Coos County and volunteers are badly needed here.
While there is a national CASA organization, the state organizations are not all the same. In some states, including neighboring Maine and Massachusetts, each county runs its own CASA group. But in N.H. the CASA organization is statewide and operates with state-wide training and standards, Jerry Larsen, supervisor for Coos County said.
So,if a case moves from one court to another, a CASA volunteer can be sure the rules under which he/she operates will be the same
CASA volunteers must go through extensive training, as well as a background check, application and 2-hour interview process in order to be certified.
Although there is no specific educational level required, beyond a high school diploma or GED, volunteers must be able to keep information confidential, must be able to communicate orally and in writing, must be able to respect and relate to people from varied backgrounds, must be able to maintain objectivity, must have a good understanding of child development and family relationships, have a car, good common sense and be at least 21.
CASA pre-service training is 40 hours on topics including: the law and courts, cultural awareness, understanding families, understanding children, communicating, gathering information and reporting. It includes guest speakers and role playing.
After becoming certified, volunteers are expected to take other in-service training from time to time.
Volunteers are expected to spend about 10 hours a month on each case and must be flexible to attend court hearings, talk with the child, talk with relevant adults and prepare reports.
Volunteers work full-time and part-time jobs, some are retired. A survey done by CASA showed gardeners, for some reason, make great volunteers.
"Many employers are supportive of this type of volunteer efforts," Roberge said.
"The goal is for a volunteer to stay with a case throughout its duration. It can be six months to two years, or more," Larson said. "It is a committment for the life of a case."
Once certified as a CASA volunteer, you are not left out on your own. Each area has a supervisor and all reports from a CASA volunteer are reviewed by the supervisor before going to the courts.
Supervisors are full-time positions and are paid. Money comes from town and city donations, from the national CASA organization and grant money. Roberge's salary as a CASA recruiter comes from a Tillotson Grant.
Generally the courts appoint a CASA volunteer first if one is available. If not then a private GAL is appointed. CASA supervisors must also take the GAL training. CASA volunteers are handling 76 percent of all cases statewide involving abused and neglected children.
At the cost of about $1,000 per child, Larsen said CASA is saving the state and cities money. Their goal is to try and decrease the amount of time children spend in foster care, get the parents to comply and reunite the family as soon as possible.
Roberge said she got involved with the human resources field after taking a position in marketing and public relations with the Morrison Nursing Home. Unfortunately, she got laid off, but then heard about this outreach position with CASA as a recruiter. Her area is large, from the lakes region to Pittsburg, She spends time going between the CASA offices in Berlin, Colebrook and Plymouth.
Anyone interested in knowing more about becoming a CASA volunteer can talk with Roberge at the Farmer's Market in Berlin on Thursday, 3-7 p.m. She is setting up there with a representative of the Child Advocacy Center every week, or you can call the Berlin office at 752-9670 or the Colebrook office at 237-8411.