“We wish we weren’t in business,” said Shari Christoff, Director of Advocacy for CASA of the River Region. But in our overburdened social services systems today, “no one wants any child to fall through the cracks. When a CASA volunteer gets paired to one case, that child has a better chance to get the help and services they need to overcome trauma.”
April holds two special month-long observances important to CASA and its mission: Volunteer Appreciation Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month. At CASA, these two observances make up the fabric of its purpose.
Retired pediatrician and medical director, John Kiesel learned about CASA over 12 years ago by chance. He has been a volunteer ever since. He used his professional background to provide insight into complex cases involving physical injury or medical conditions, which he says brings him fulfillment. “I love being around kids,” Kiesel said. “Being a CASA gives me a sense of fulfillment. It’s a culmination of everything I’ve done in the past.” His hard work and dedication have given judges in many courtrooms an additional, reliable perspective on what might be best for the kids involved.
CASA volunteers’ work in child abuse prevention cannot be overstated. “Child abuse is familial, passed down from parent to child,” Kiesel said. When a parent handles a situation with violence, children learn to do the same, sometimes teaching their children and so on. A CASA helps the process of stepping in and breaking that generational linkage, one case at a time, according to Kiesel. When a CASA spends the time to get to know children, “the kids can have a sense of someone who cares about them and sees a future for them. [They] provide a sense of stability and a sense of being wanted and valued,” he said.
CASA’s Director of Advocacy, Shari Christoff, screens, trains, and oversees volunteers, advocacy supervisors and their cases. “Because these children have had so much disruption in their lives, so many different moves, so much chaos,” Christoff said, “we would like to be able to provide at least one person who is going to stay the same.”
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life and have varied and diverse backgrounds. There is no education or experience required to apply to be a CASA volunteer, except they must be committed and dedicated to children.
But volunteering as a child advocate is not without some sadness and difficulty. Marty Burke has been a CASA volunteer for almost nine years. He began working as a CASA after retiring. Being a CASA volunteer gave him a great sense of purpose, despite seeing the dark side of humanity.
“There’s a need that’s out there, a need that’s unfortunately going to be ongoing for many years,” Burke said, referring to the need of support for kids who have experienced child abuse and neglect. “I wish there was no need for CASA volunteers, especially in Kentucky.”
In Kentucky, child abuse happens at a rate double the national average, reported by WDRB. Nearly 17 in every 1,000 children in Kentucky experience abuse, double the national average of 8.4. This ranks Kentucky as fifth in the United States in its rate of child abuse and neglect cases for 2020. This ranking comes after leading in first place for the past three consecutive years, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ latest report on child abuse and neglect.
Because of the reality of child abuse in Kentucky, Burke said, “I would hate to see a world without CASA volunteers.” He continued, “All of us are in this because we want to help children, and I don’t know of another organization like this that has the opportunity to do what we do.”
Kiesel has this advice for anyone thinking of being a CASA: “I would encourage people to get involved with it if they have wherewithal to do it. It’s hard but it changes your life and children’s lives.”
Christoff deeply appreciates the hard work of CASA volunteers in fighting to prevent child abuse and dedicating their time to help vulnerable children today.
“We have a lot of great volunteers,” Christoff said, “and whenever I get depressed about children’s situations, I just look at the volunteers and I’m inspired. If you want to be on the frontlines of a child’s life, speaking to the judge, saying what your concerns are and advocating for a child’s best interests, CASA is a great place to spend your time. I’m very proud of our volunteers.”
Thank you to all of our volunteers, past and present. CASA can only serve our community’s most vulnerable children through volunteers’ dedication and love for the work they do.
To learn more about volunteering or supporting CASA, reserve your FREE seat at our Embrace a Child Breakfast on Friday, April 22, 8 a.m. at Copper & Kings Distillery. For information or to RSVP: www.casarr.org/embrace-a-child-breakfast
If you’re ready to become a CASA volunteer, apply here.