With hundreds of children caught up in the Portage County court system due to parental abuse, neglect or dependency, State Representative Gail Pavliga and Juvenile Judge Patricia Smith felt it It was high time these children had someone to speak for them.

Enter the Court Appointed Special Advocates Program. When Paviliga realized Portage County was not taking advantage of the program, she contacted Doug Stevens, executive director of the CASA organization in Ohio, to ask why there was no operation going on in her district.

After:Portage commissioners accept tax breaks for 2 companies planning to invest $115M in new buildings

After:Portage sheriff seeks information on fatal shooting at house party in 2017

After:Ex-Ravenna teacher delivers food to people in need

Pavliga spoke with Smith, who enthusiastically supported introducing the program to Portage, but noted that there was no funding available. Pavliga then obtained money for the project by adding it to the state budget. The Portage County CASA program was on the way.

The group began work last September and in March Smith led the swearing-in ceremony for his first class of 11 volunteer defenders. Within two weeks, the whole class was assigned to the cases.

Volunteers are required to conduct thorough background and family life investigations of a child, independent of the court, with the goal of analyzing the best course of action for the child they represent.

“This includes reviewing school records; it could be counseling and treatment records, medical records; we also review parents’ backgrounds, their records,” said County CASA executive director Ann Walden. of Portage.

Because CASA serves children from birth to age 17, each case is different, but the goals are the same, according to Walden.

“We are working to find permanency for the children we work with, in whatever form,” Walden said.

In some cases, this means reuniting a child with their family. When this is not possible, adoption may become the next step. CASA’s goal is to provide stability.

Portage County CASA volunteer Leslie Thomas talks about her experiences with the CASA program.

Leslie Thomas, a graduate of CASA’s first class of lawyers, said one of the keys to providing a solid foundation on which a child can build his or her life after leaving the jurisdiction of the court is the presence of a lawyer while throughout the legal process.

Justice Smith agrees. She said children with CASA volunteers are not moved from placement to placement as often. Employment and family services have a heavy workload and they often try to find a new placement for a child as quickly as possible if the situation is not suitable. Ideally, a CASA volunteer is able to step in and resolve issues related to a placement instead of moving the child from place to place.

“We know that the more we move a child,” Smith said, “the worse off they are.” She said that ever-changing life situations make it harder for children to live in general.

“We don’t want to develop more issues with the kids because of what we did with them while they were in custody,” Smith said.

Ann Walden, Executive Director of CASA Portage County.

The training of lawyers is thorough. Volunteers are required to complete 30 hours of pre-employment training – of which 15 hours are on Zoom and the other 15 hours are conducted independently – and court observation. Once they have completed their initial training, sworn in and taken on business, their training continues. CASA mandates 12 hours of continuing education per year.

Advocates are also required to meet with the child they represent once a month, at a minimum.

“I’ve only been in contact with my child five times, six, maybe,” Thomas said, “but each time she opens up a little more and is a little more comfortable with her. be with me or talk to me.”

The duration of cases varies considerably. When Job and Family Services files a complaint, parents can take corrective action quickly, Walden said. In other cases, it may take longer.

Juvenile cases have a lifespan of two years, and if a resolution to the case cannot be found within that time, CASA and Job and Family Services begin to seek more permanent placement options such as foster care or another family member who can take care.

Anyone can volunteer, as long as they are over 21 and pass a background check.

Thomas, for example, was a CPA until his recent retirement.

According to Smith, the program could use more male volunteers. Most people who apply to work with the program are women, she said, but a significant number of detained children are men.

The first step to getting involved with CASA of Portage County is to contact Walden. From there, those interested can complete an application which can be found online. After receiving an application, Walden arranges an interview with the future volunteer.

“We talk a bit and then we start the process of planning a moment for practice,” Walden said.

There is no set schedule for training. Walden said CASA understands that people who sign up to volunteer have jobs, social lives and family obligations. When she has a new group of candidates, she talks to all of them, trying to coordinate everyone’s schedule so that the training is accessible to everyone.

Currently, 18 new volunteers are undergoing training. Upon completion of their training, Portage County will have a total of 29 CASA volunteers ready to intervene on a child’s behalf. This rapid expansion necessitated the hiring of a coordinator to assist Walden in his duties. National accreditation standards outlined by the national organization CASA dictate that one person cannot be in charge of 30 or more volunteers.

Funding for the first year of operation is provided by the state and national CASA organizations, and in the second year they will provide 90% of the funds. Walden is working to secure funding through the Victims of Crime Act, Smith said. She added that going forward, a branch of the Portage County CASA program will be a non-profit organization that will raise funds to support volunteer efforts.

Smith said Doug Stevens of CASA Organizations in Ohio praised the Portage County team as his “rock star” program because of how quickly they came together and the number of volunteers that ‘they already have. Smith said it normally takes 12 to 18 months for a new program to start working.

A wave of community support made their rapid expansion possible, Walden said. Portage County Commissioners donated office space in Riddle Block while Employment and Family Services donated furniture.

Despite rapid growth, there is still an urgent need for CASA volunteers in Portage County. Each attorney handles only one case at a time. Smith said there are currently more than 300 children in custody and the county is already on track to have more than 200 cases for the year.

Being a volunteer is rewarding, said Thomas.

“Just connecting with a child is a wonderful experience,” she said. “Knowing that you’re going to be providing them with constant and consistent support, I really think we’re going to have an impact on this child’s life.”

Contact journalist Derek Kreider at [email protected]