CASA celebrates decade of providing voices for children

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Chautauqua County has reached a milestone in its 10th anniversary as an independent not-for-profit organization. Its mission, to be the voice for neglected and abused children in the Family Court system, move them from foster care to permanent safe homes is still being carried forth.

Trained CASA volunteers are appointed by the Family Court judge to advocate for and represent the best interests of abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes for their safety and protection. A CASA volunteer provides that one constant person in a child’s life from referral by the court until a permanent, safe, and forever home is ruled acceptable by the Family Court.

Judge Judith S. Claire and Donna Vanstrom, were the driving force in bringing CASA to Chautauqua County. The Honorable Judge Judith S. Claire learned of the CASA program while attending a 2002 conference of Family Court and Juvenile Judges Association.

She made a decision and commitment to bring this program to Chautauqua County. In October 2002, a call was made to the community to attend a meeting in Mayville discussing the possibility of establishing a CASA program here in Chautauqua County. A standing room only crowd, including Assemblywoman Cathy Young, County Executive Mark Thomas, local judges, attorneys, health care professionals, teachers, parents and local residents were interested to learn more about Court Appointed Special Advocates for children.

In January 2003 a volunteer committee formed an independent not-for-profit organization to train and support approved volunteers to advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected youth in the courts. On Feb. 2, 2004 the first Court Appointed Special Advocates were sworn into service by the Honorable Judge Judith S. Claire.

Over the last 10 years, 117 volunteers have served 312 children. Today, 24 active Advocate Volunteers continue the work serving 66 children in foster care waiting for their forever home. Fifty-six children currently await their volunteer; the need is great; interested individuals can contact the CASA office at 457-4123 or 457-4132 for more information.

CASA of Chautauqua County, Inc. serves all of Chautauqua County, children referrals are directly from the family court judge; cases referred are among the most severe in the system, representing only 20-30 percent of cases brought before the court. Volunteers work closely with CASA staff, the child and with all parties involved in the wellbeing of their assigned child(ren). Volunteers submit factual reports to the court providing a voice for the child, advocating for the child’s best interests during court appearances.

On March 14, a dinner was held at Chautauqua Suites celebrating all that CASA has accomplished over our 10 years here in Chautauqua County. The absolute highlight of the evening was the entertainment provided by none-other than our very own kids. Sixteen of the most beautiful little faces joined their voices and shy smiles singing “We are the World” followed later in the program by a powerful performance by Mia singing right from her heart to all of ours. Most inspiring was the speech from a young lady who survived the system and found her forever home – Aylie. They also listened to Jennifer share her story of her and her two younger sisters’ struggles of growing up in foster care.

The food was delicious, the honorees a plenty with accolades given to the heart of the program, the CASA Volunteers, with recognition given to Mary Ann Zimmer for being chosen as CASA Volunteer of the year. Judge Claire and Donna Vanstrom were also recognized for their determination and dedication in bringing a CASA program to Chautauqua County and Judge Claire’s commitment to CASA’s cause. Her dream is that every child referred to CASA has a CASA advocate.

The core heart of the CASA program is the many CASA volunteers who have invested time, energy and heart to the children they advocate for. Whether it is working one on one with a child or committing to serving on the board to assure the children are afforded a volunteer, they are the true heart of the program. Although it is important to keep in mind that without the support of Staff, Department of Social Services, Attorneys for the Children, Foster Parents, local foundations, other agencies, teachers in our school systems and people in our community we could not do what we do. So when you ask yourself what does it take for an organization to reach a milestone like this it’s simple, it takes everyone coming together.

For more information, contact CASA of Chautauqua County Inc. at 753-4123.