CASA stands for the children forgotten among us

I can't imagine many things more terrifying for a young child than to be taken away from family by strangers, only to be placed in the care of yet more strangers. But this scenario is the reality for many of our community's children who must be placed into the foster-care system for their own protection.

And no matter how horrific their family situation, no matter how loving a foster home they may land in, navigating that abrupt transition is scary.

"Everything changes for that child," says Jennifer Mylenek, the executive director of Jackson County's Court Appointed Special Advocates. "Everything they taste, feel and see changes. And they're just children."

So I also can't imagine a more heroic use of one's time than to spend it helping these children as a CASA volunteer.

A child's time as a ward of the court can last from a year to more than a decade. The resolution of each case depends upon many factors — the family dynamic, the age of the child, the judgment of the courts. Throughout that duration, there is one person whose sole responsibility is to advocate on behalf of that child — the CASA.

CASA volunteers are sworn officers of the court who work to ensure that the abused and neglected children of Jackson County grow up in safe and loving homes. They attend all court hearings and are the voice for these wards of the court. CASA volunteers continue to advocate for their children — from babies to age 18 — until the final resolution of the case, no matter how long it takes, says Mylenek.

Joe O'Connor is pushing 80 years old. The retired president of a manufacturing firm says he'd tried other volunteer venues before finding CASA.

"I was looking for something meaningful," O'Connor says. "It's a very positive role we play."

A CASA volunteer for more than six years now, O'Connor has been an advocate for a number of children, and his CASA stories run the gamut.

But one about a child who "never knew a bad day in her life," springs first to mind. Perhaps it's because it makes O'Connor happy to tell it.

This little baby was born into a very bad situation, but she caught some lucky breaks, he says. "The tragedies are usually in the beginning," says O'Connor. Removed from her parents soon after she was born, the babe was first placed with a short-term foster family in Ashland. Pretty soon she was able to be placed with her grandmother. The courts eventually ordered her parents rights to be terminated, and the child was adopted by a loving uncle when she was 3 years old. The little girl had found a new family, within her extended family, with built-in siblings who were thrilled to get a new baby sister, he says.

"I was at the adoption ceremony," says O'Connor. "That was really something."

As she went from infant to toddler to preschooler, O'Connor stood guard over the little girl's best interest.

"I visited her regularly," he says. "Especially during the initial crisis with the parents, as they were breaking up. My concern was with the child."

He checked on the family. He checked with her doctors. And he made numerous reports to the courts. "I stand up for the child," O'Connor says. "We were six or seven times in court the first year."

Judges will tell you that they rely upon the CASAs for insight and information. As an officer of the court, the CASA has access to all the child's information. And they are the person whose sole duty is to protect that child's interests.

CASAs present facts to the court that can save a child from being returned to, or placed in, a dangerous situation. They can save a child's emotional health by recommending, where appropriate, professional counseling for the child. They protect a child's health by alerting the court to medical or dental conditions that may have gone unnoticed or unattended. Best of all, like Joe O'Connor, they advocate for a happy ending — a child placed in a safe, loving and permanent home.

More than 500 children in our county are waiting for a CASA to be assigned to them. More than half are under the age of 6.

If you want a chance to be a hero in a child's life, contact Emily Canete, CASA program administrator at 734-2272, ext. 307.

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