By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Region – A new group of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers culminated their training with a swearing-in ceremony at the Worcester District Courthouse April 14. Their backgrounds and life experiences may differ from one another, but they hold a common goal – to advocate for children in the foster care and child welfare system, who, otherwise, would not have a voice.
“We recruit, train, screen and support volunteers from the community who become appointed special advocates for children who have been referred to the juvenile court for abuse and neglect,” explained Robb Zarges, executive director of CASA Worcester County. “They have been taken from their home by [the Department of Children and Families] and they are now involved in a court process where they are now trying to determine long-term living arrangements and what will be in the best interests of the child – whether that will be in a reunification with the parent, a kinship placement with a relative or if the child will be free for adoption.”
The children vary in ages from birth to 17 and 11 months. One of the objectives of the CASA Project is to determine what is best for each child and do so in an objective way. A goal is to have the children move out of foster care and into a safe, loving permanent home.
“Foster care has a huge emotional impact on children,” Zarges said. “For children living in several different homes over a period of time, in addition to an emotional impact, there is also a developmental impact. We also see it as prevention in the juvenile system and youth homelessness because the most stable indicator of a child either becoming homeless or entering the juvenile justice system is foster care placements.”
The initial training is a 24 process and volunteers vary in trades, backgrounds, age and reasons for why they choose to participate in this nonprofit organization. After they go through a screening process and training is complete, the cases are assigned by a judge. The CASA volunteer will have access to all of the information surrounding the case to help with a resolution. The role of the volunteers is to play an independent, objective role for the best interests of the child. There is also an opportunity for the volunteers to get together on a monthly basis with one another for support.
“Being a volunteer for CASA is a very rewarding experience,” noted volunteer Siobhan Costello Weber. “A little time at your own pace each month can make a big difference in the lives of our community’s children. I love that the impact is local and personal. I volunteer because I really believe the most sustainable investment in our communities is the fierce protection of our children and continued focus on their development into connected, healthy adults.”
Anyone can become a successful CASA volunteer. Most of the cases in this area are younger children from birth to age 6. Last year in 2016, CASA of Worcester County handled 236 cases involving almost 600 children and 200 volunteers. They serve all five courthouses – Worcester, Fitchburg, Leominster, Dudley and Milford.
Zarges has been executive director for CASA Worcester for nine months.
“Our goal by 2021 is to be able to serve every child in Worcester County,” Zarges said. “We will need to increase our budget, staff and volunteers. There is also a need for financial partners.”
For Zarges, the job is professional as well as personal.
“For 27 years I worked with a high-risk youth population,” he said. “I adopted three children through the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut. I knew the questions to ask and advocated for my children. Not every adoptive parent has that. I have three awesome sons. My oldest is age 22 and my twins are 16.”
If you are interested in becoming a CASA volunteer or would like more information, visit www.casaworcester.org or call CASA Worcester County at 508-757-9877.