YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Ohio leads the nation in overdose deaths and has seen an 11 percent increase in children placed under protective custody since 2000. Now the state is looking for adults who can speak up for these abused and neglected kids affected by their parents’ drug use.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) help protect the best interests of children in court.
“The judge finds it important, the volunteers find it important. It’s important that the kids have an opportunity to be heard and not just be talked about,” said Jeff Street, a CASA volunteer.
Cathy Kristan leads the Mahoning County CASA program, which was involved with 65 children last year. Through June, it’s gotten involved with 58 more.
A CASA makes sure children can progress through the child welfare system and then back to a safe, loving home.
“Talking to their school, their teacher, doctor’s office, counseling,” Kristan said. “Then when we go into the court, we speak up for that child, meaning what is the best interest for this child?”
The CASA collects that knowledge and, ultimately, a judge will decide if it’s in the child’s best interest to go back with the parents, be placed with relatives, or go into foster care.
“My goal as a CASA volunteer is to know the child, get to know the parents, know everybody that has an impact on that child and a hand on their life,” Street said.
While the number of children being helped is going up, the number of CASA volunteers is going down. Mahoning County has seen a 20 percent drop and the number of men involved is only around 10 percent.
CASA’s 40 programs covering 47 counties served 8,753 children in 2016 — about 1,500 more than in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of volunteers over that span remained relatively steady at 2,162 — rising by 68.
“I understand people have an addiction problem but also, people are sad and they need help. These moms are struggling and the dads are struggling,” said Kera Yelkin, a CASA volunteer. “As a CASA, you’re not just speaking up for the child. You’re also getting involved with that family and trying to find resources for them to have a support group because once you help the parents, it will, in turn, help the child.”
If you have the desire to help a child, CASA is looking for volunteers. You must be at least 21 years old, complete a written application with three references, and undergo a screening, background check, and training.
One thing you don’t need? A legal background.
“The most important thing is to be able to relate to the child and be the voice for the child, so you don’t need a legal background. You need to understand that it’s the best interest of the child and it doesn’t take a law degree to understand that,” Kristan said. “You make a recommendation to the judge, you stand up for the child, and that’s all you have to do.”
CASA plans to start a new training program later this month. To get involved, call the Mahoning County CASA office at 330-740-2239.
You can also visit Mahoning County CASA’s website for more about its mission and what it takes to be a volunteer.