Children in need along the South Coast could get a boost if there are volunteers to do it.
A regional nonprofit is looking for local volunteers in Curry County to help speak for children in painful family situations as the organization tries to rebuild operations in the county.
The volunteers are called CASAs — or court-appointed special advocates — and they work with children facing instability at home.
“There’s a missing person — a missing advocate — when you don’t have a CASA on board,” said Greg Dalton, the program director for CASA of Coos and Curry Counties.
Whereas an attorney for a foster child has to advocate for whatever a child wants, and a state case worker is bound by certain agency requirements, Dalton’s trained volunteers give the judge their outside perspective about a child’s best interest, he said. What’s more, a CASA typically only assists one child or family, while attorneys and case workers serve many at a time.
That means appearing in court to speak on the child’s behalf — but it also means spending time learning about the child. That can include speaking with doctors and case workers about a child with special permission granted by a judge and visiting regularly with a child at their foster home (or virtually during the pandemic).
“It’s just about sitting and being present,” Dalton said.
Until October, the program in Curry County had been run through the program in Douglas County.
But when the Douglas County program let go of some staff in Curry County early last year, and volunteers’ ability to meet with staff and youth became more challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic, the program began to struggle.
“The volunteers down there, with the pandemic going on, not having staff, were kind of isolated,” Dalton said.
At the time, he was heading the CASA program in Coos County through Oregon Coast Community Action.
Community members would reach out to Dalton and ask if his organization could help fill the need to the south — but since volunteers have to be sworn in by a county’s judges, the Coos County CASAs couldn’t help kids in Curry County.
So he and his staff began conversations about taking over Curry County’s operation. Eventually, he took it to ORCCA’s board, which has been looking for ways to expand its support in that county.
“It was just like a big, ‘Yes, we need to do that. We need to be there for those kids,’” Dalton said.
And in October, ORCCA took over the operation of Curry County’s CASA program — and Dalton started looking for volunteers.
“I got on the phone and called every number I had,” Dalton said.
Before the county’s CASA office closed, Dalton estimates that the county had around 18 advocates to serve around 35 youth.
“We have four amazing volunteers in Curry County,” Dalton said. “We need more.”
The need could become even greater soon, according to Dalton. The number of children coming into care has actually decreased since the pandemic began.
That’s not necessarily because fewer children need help — instead, they’re just not in school, where teachers and other mandatory reporters can raise red flags about possible abuse or home issues. So when schools eventually reopen for in-person instruction, Dalton anticipates there could be an influx of children in need.
Retired teachers and former social workers often make ideal CASA volunteers, but there’s no requirement for prior experience, since “volunteers come from all walks of life,” according to Dalton.
“It’s about having that passion, empathy and an open mind to be able to do this work,” he said.
Volunteers can make a big impact on foster children. Dalton still gets phone calls from kids he volunteered for a decade ago.
The process to become a volunteer begins with an interview. After a 30-hour training session, background checks and continual review by staff, CASAs are sworn in by judges in the county they’ll serve in.
Dalton says those who are interested in becoming CASAs — or becoming foster parents, a group of volunteers he says is even more needed — should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-435-7103.
“One for every child is what we need,” he said of the ideal scenario.