For the past four years, the volunteer workers of the Tri-County Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) have been working behind the scenes to help make the lives of at-risk children safer and more secure.
Lori Aldridge was a volunteer advocate beginning in 2014 and took over as the executive director of the progran, which serves the tri-county area of Grayson, Breckinridge and Meade counties since October of this year.
Debbie Filippone has been a volunteer in the program for the past two years and was recently named the chairperson of the 16-member Board of Directors.
Aldrige said, “Usually the child is out of the home and our goal is to find permanency for the child, either with another family member or through adoption. It can be a very long process.”
Not all children in the child welfare program have CASA volunteers assigned to their cases, but when the judges, in this case Judge Shan Embry or Judge Harold Goff, decides it is warranted, a CASA worker is assigned to the case.
“We are just another set of eyes and ears, working together with the state Cabinet for Health & Family Services and the social workers, who are looking out for the welfare of the child,” Filippone said.
And that is what is emphasized at CASA, what is in the best interest of the child.
“What is special about being a CASA worker is that the court order gives us access to everything about the child, school records, medical records… basically anything we need to know to determine what is in the best interest of the child,” Filippone said.
Historically, social workers have been overloaded with cases and are not always able to provide the kind of one-on-one support certain children need. Plus they have a strict agenda set out by the state that they must adhere to, which may not always jibe with what the child actually needs.
The CASA workers are not burdened by a strict set of rules mandated by the state and are allowed flexibility in determining what is best in each case, and the workers never have more than two cases at a time.
This allows the workers to zero in on what is needed in each case.
“The permanency a CASA worker can provide can be a comfort to a child who has been moved around a lot and who has had any number of people, parents, foster-parents, social workers, come and go in their lives,” Filippone said. “I am one person they see on a regular basis that they know is only about them.
“My concern is not what is in the best interest of the parent. I make reports and recommendations based solely on what is in the best interest of the child.”
The workers do this by being able to take the time to get to know the child and the conditions in which they are being brought up. They get to know everyone who comes in contact with the child, parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, foster parents… anyone who interacts in the life of the child.
The program began back in 1977 when a juvenile court judge working in Seattle became concerned about the sometimes life-altering decisions he was having to make regarding children without having sufficient information about his cases. He conceived the idea of having citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom.
Since that time, the program has been expanded to over 1,000 volunteers in 49 states. Kentucky currently has 19 CASA programs helping children throughout the state.
Tri-County CASA currently has eight active workers and several others who are inactive at the time. They have about 20-25 children they are advocating for at the current time.
Aldridge said they have 12 volunteers waiting to undergo the 40 hours of training to become certified and will be advertising for even more volunteers after the first of the year.
The primary source of funding for the program comes through a grant from the United Way. There are just two paid positions, Aldridge’s and another Volunteer Advoacte working out of Meade County. Any other financial aide comes through local fund-raisers.
For the CASA worker, the ultimate goal is reunification of the family, restoring children to the care of their parents, but this can be a difficult process. All of the children in the program are cases dealing with dependency (usually drugs or alcohol), neglect or abuse. Many times, parents or guardians have no knowledge of what they need to do to become better care-givers and the CASA worker is able to point them in the right direction.
“We have lists of people and programs where these people can get the help they need,” Filippone said.
Filippone currently has two cases she is handling, one in which the children are in foster care, the other in which two teenagers are beings looked after by their grandmother.
“The kids have a strong attachment to their grandmother and she to them, but she needs help,” Filippone said. “We’re trying to get her the help she needs so the kids are not removed from her home and placed in foster care.”
If you have an interest in becoming a CASA volunteer, you can contact Aldridge at 502-744-3137. You can gain more information about the national program at casaforchildren.org, or statewide at casanetworkky.com.
Reach Don Brown at 270-259-9622, ext. 2016.