Volunteers needed to be 'voices of children' in court system

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jane Foreman for many years embraced the challenges of being a foster parent to teen girls.

When her partner died, Foreman stopped taking in young women.

But she was not ready to stop working with children. Her daughter recommended that she check into Court Appointed Special Advocates, a program that makes a daily difference in the lives of Rock County children.

Three years later, Foreman has received an award from the nonprofit program as most distinguished advocate for 2013.

Kim Churchill, CASA program director, wishes she could clone Foreman because she has only 10 active volunteers.

“We are in desperate need of more advocates,” she said. “We currently have 49 children on a waiting list.”

A training program for new advocates begins Tuesday, Feb. 11, and three more will be held this year for people who want to become the voices of children in the juvenile justice system.

Here is how the program of Family Services of Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois works: Volunteers such as Foreman get free training on child development, the courts, safety and family issues. They must be at least 21 years old, have high school diplomas and pass background checks.

“If we think they are a good fit,” Churchill said, “we pair them with a child, who has usually been removed from the home under a CHIPS court order.”

CHIPS stand for Children in Need of Protection and Services.

The advocate is sworn in as a friend of the court, and a judge appoints an advocate to represent the best interest of a child, who has been abused or neglected.

“The intended goal is reunification with one or both of the parents,” Churchill said. “In some cases, it may not be in the best interest of the child. Some of our cases go to termination of parental rights.”

CASA volunteers provide the judge with information about the child to help the court make sound decisions about the child's future.

“When you are assigned a child, you not only get to meet regularly with him or her, but you also meet the parents, teachers, therapists and everyone involved with the child,” Foreman explained.

The CASA advocate writes regular reports, which cover all aspects of a child's life, including how things are going at school, relationships with family and friends and whether the child has any financial or material needs. The reports go to the judge.

The CASA advocate provides “important eyes and ears for me between the normal court reviews to bring up issues and problems in a timely manner,” said Rock County Judge R. Alan Bates, juvenile division. “CASA volunteers can say whatever they want. Sometimes they bring new angles to what we are learning.”

Foreman has advocated for four children so far as a CASA volunteer.

“I spend time with the child to find out what he or she would like,” Foreman said. “I have no agenda. I am strictly a voice for the child, and the judge will put a lot of weight on that.”

She works closely with parents.

“So far, I've gotten along with all of them,” Foreman said. “Sometimes you have very angry parents because their children have been removed. They are not receptive when someone is sticking their nose in their business. I tell them I am here to help them get their kids back. I ask them what we need to do to make it happen.”

If parents know the advocate is on their side, they are open to suggestions, she said.

One young mother needed parenting skills.

“She did not have much of a role model in her mother,” Foreman said. “She wanted to be a mom but didn't have a clue how to do it.”

The woman got the training she needed, and “it turned out to be very successful,” Foreman said.

She is sensitive to the pain children and families feel when they are in crisis.

“I don't like kids hurting,” Foreman said. “I am not paid to do this. I am there because I care, and that makes a big difference to many of the parents.”

She spends 16 to 20 hours per month advocating for her appointed child.

“It is a very satisfying thing to help these families who are in so much trouble,” Foreman said. “I get really involved with my kids. The quicker you can resolve the situation, the better. Kids don't want to be away from home.”

Churchill called being a CASA volunteer “an intense volunteer opportunity.”

“Many advocates are retired people who are looking for ways to give back,” Churchill said. “We also encourage couples to go through training.”

She asks volunteers for at least a year of their time.

“These children have a lot of people coming in and out of their lives,” Churchill said. “We are looking for people who will stay with them for the long haul.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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