Volunteers make a difference for children in foster care

When complicated child abuse and neglect cases go before a judge, Kimberly Prime steps up to speak for the children.

Prime, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children, is a retired teacher and school administrator who served on the CAN (Child Abuse and Neglect) Council Great Lakes Bay Region for a decade before volunteering as an advocate.

“My deep love and affinity for children has just blossomed in being a CASA,” Prime says. “Somebody’s got to do it. Somebody’s got to be the voice for these poor, innocent babies.”

Being the voice of children who are in the court system due to abuse or neglect means advocating for a child in front of judges, attorneys, foster parents, biological parents, teachers, counselors, and others. Each CASA is assigned to one family at a time. The CASA stays with the family as long as the children are in foster care. That could mean volunteering for one year or six years, says Katherine Griffiths, CASA director for the CAN Council Great Lakes Bay Region.

“We ask that they commit to that family or that sibling group they’re working with for the whole duration that they’re in foster care so they can be that consistent person,” Griffiths says.

Children in foster care often move between different homes. If their time in foster care lasts long enough, children may work with different counselors, attorneys, and judges. The CASA provides consistency and stability.

The CAN Council always needs trained CASA volunteers. Currently, 15 CASAs work with about 40 children. Each CASA works with only one family at a time. Griffiths is recruiting volunteers for a training that begins in July.

The requirements to sign up for the training are simple – you must be at least 21 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, pass a background check, and complete a pre-service interview. The job also demands tremendous empathy for children.

Prime says she’s always loved children. As a teacher and school administrator, she thought she’d seen every kind of parent and kid. The training, though, was eye opening. At one point, while learning about what children face, Prime was overwhelmed with emotion.

“I had to put my head down and I literally said ‘God I don’t think I can do this because it raises two really strong emotions in me ­­– such sorrow and empathy and such anger.’ I kept my head down for awhile and that night in my prayers, I just said ‘You gotta let me know if I can do this.’”

In the end, Prime knew she had to accept the challenge to help children. Now, she focuses on squelching her anger and trusting the empathy to help her advocate for the child.

“That’s why CASAs are so important,” Prime says. “Our only priority is the child. Our priorities are not the parents and not the system and not the stepparents and not the foster parents. It’s the best interest of the child. That makes it easier.”

Prime can’t say much about the child she works with now in order to avoid identifying him. She does say she loves that being a CASA allows her to help children like him.

“The requirements are simple,” Prime says. “A heart and desire to help children who need help. It’s emotional, but, man, you asked what can you expect? Just great satisfaction in being that voice for a child.”

Griffiths tells each CASA to expect to spend about 10 to 20 hours a month volunteering. A CASA volunteer visits the children in person about once a week. He or she also attends court hearings, meets with the team caring for the child, and writes reports.

The job is a little different during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more reliance on video meetings. No matter how the meetings take place, though, the mission remains the same.

“We’re that extra set of eyes and ears that can focus just on that child or that sibling group,” Griffiths says. “We speak up to make sure the child gets what he or she needs. (CASAs) do this because they have a heart for children.”

The CASAs all volunteer and families don’t pay for their services. Funding for the training and support of CASAs comes from the Victims of Crime Act, the court system, grants, and donations. Referrals to the program come from anyone in touch with the child including the judge, an attorney, foster parents, biological parents, or a teacher.

Unfortunately, the CAN Council can’t fulfill every request. “There definitely are more kids out there in foster care than there are CASAs,” Griffiths says. “Usually we’re assigned in those cases that are a little bit more complex.”

That’s why the CAN Council continually recruits volunteers and offers several training courses each year. The 8-week training session includes about 30 hours of classroom time plus 6 hours of courtroom observation. After the initial training, volunteers must complete an additional 12 hours of in-service training each year.

“There’s always going to be a need,” Griffiths says. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to serve all the children who are in foster care.”

To anyone thinking about the training, Prime recommends reading “Three Little Words: A Memoir,” by Ashley Rhodes-Courter. In the book, Rhodes-Courter details the nine years she spent in 14 different foster homes.

You can learn more about the CAN Council and CASA program on the agency's Facebook page.