CASA volunteers put children first

Tracy Haun OwensFeature, West Knoxville

On a recent cold, sunny morning on Division Street, a group of eight assembled early in Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin’s courtroom for a swearing-in as court-appointed special advocates through CASA of East Tennessee. CASA volunteers serve children who are possibly victims of abuse and neglect. These unpaid advocates are “the voice of the child” as the children make their way through a court system that can be bewildering and intimidating. CASA’s goal is for every child in the system to have a safe and stable permanent home.

Surrounded by family and friends and CASA staff, the eight new CASA advocates took an oath to do their duties to the utmost of their abilities, for the best interest of the children they are serving and with complete confidentiality.

The most recent crop of CASA of East Tennessee volunteers were sworn in by Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin: Megan Sooter, Molly Hester, Holly Bruns, Jack Sills, Michele Sowers, Samantha Dinwiddie and Jessica Burnett. (Photos courtesy of Britney Sink)

As he addressed this group – one of the largest single volunteer classes CASA of East Tennessee has had in recent years – Judge Irwin joked, “I’m so proud to have a class this big, I might triple your pay.” He reminded them that without their input as the child’s advocate or observer, the court is missing part of the story.

“I appreciate your willingness to volunteer and be trained,” he said.

During the fiscal year that ended in July, CASA of East Tennessee served 251 children with 55 active volunteers.

Volunteers come from various professions and backgrounds, but the most important qualification is willingness to help a child, says Britney Sink, CASA of East Tennessee executive director. She manages the not-for-profit from a small office in the Homberg Building. Two other staff members are based at the court to support the CASA advocates.

Prospective volunteers undergo a lengthy interview and a background check. If approved, they move on to 33 hours of classroom training and court observation. They learn what to look for when interacting with families and how to write a report to the court. Once assigned to a case, they swear to see it through to a conclusion (a year and a half on average) and come to know every adult in a child’s life, including parents, other relatives, teachers, clergy and foster parents. Based on those observations, the CASA advocate writes a recommendation to the court.

These recommendations are accepted by the court about 96 percent of the time, Sink says.

“We make sure we’re advocating for the child,” she says.

CASA is not a mentoring program, and advocates often find it tricky to negotiate boundaries as they come to know the children and the adults in their lives. In other words, it’s tough work.

“We don’t sugarcoat it for anyone,” Sink says.

CASA is funded by donations and grants. It holds two major fundraisers, a Summer Wines soiree and the Red Shoe Gala. The seventh annual gala takes place Feb. 2 at The Standard.

Thanks to a grant, in 2019, Sink will have room in her budget for a full-time volunteer recruiter.

“We can only serve as many kids as we have volunteers for,” Sink says. “The real power of CASA is that we are there to serve the child. At the end of the day, it’s about the child’s life.”

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