CASA of Portage County trains volunteers to advocate for children in the court system

Portage County Courthouse. Photo by Jon Ridinger

The first ever class of volunteer courtroom advocates for Portage County children will be sworn in March 11 to support abused and neglected kids in the county’s Juvenile Court system.

The CASA program never existed in Portage County until now, said Ann Walden, executive director of CASA of Portage County, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Portage County is the 57th county in Ohio to get a CASA program and one of over 900 programs across the nation. 

CASA of Portage County began its journey to advocate for abused and neglected children last October. The organization trains community members who want to advocate for children who are going through the juvenile court system due to cases such as abuse and neglect. 

These volunteers learn everything they can about the child’s past and current situation by speaking with the child, their parents, school personnel, therapists — really anyone who interacts with the child. 

Once the volunteers gather information, they compile it into a report and make recommendations in the best interest of the child. That report then gets filed with the court and distributed to all parties, including parents, Job and Family Services and anyone else involved in the case. The judge and magistrates also review the report to make better decisions in the case.

With the proper training — which is provided by the CASA program — and a thorough background check, anyone can be a CASA volunteer. 

“In our first class of volunteers I have medical professionals, I have retired teachers, I have a coach, a business person, a banker,” Walden said. “They come from all walks of life, but the one shared quality they all have is that they care about kids and they want to make a difference in the community.”

Once they pass the background check and vetting process, volunteers undergo 30 hours of initial training at the CASA office at 209 S. Chestnut St., Suite 203, in Ravenna, where they’re assessed to ensure they’re a good fit for the program.

The training program is comprehensive and covers a variety of topics, including mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence, so volunteers are well-equipped to handle the different cases they may be assigned.

“We also do several case studies, so we have examples of cases that come through and we discuss what type of recommendations we would make and the most effective ways to investigate those cases,” Walden said. “We train our volunteers on how to maintain neutrality and confidentiality because all of our cases are confidential. We also do a lot of training on biases, just to make sure people aren’t trying to put their own values onto the families and children they’re working with.”

Following the 30 hours of initial training, volunteers are required to do 12 hours of continued education each year for as long as they remain a CASA volunteer. 

The volunteer class being sworn in on March 11 consists of 10 people, and once they’re sworn in they’ll be given a case and begin their advocacy work. 

“The caseload here in Portage County is pretty high and the need is pretty high,” Walden said. “Typically there are over 200 children at any one time that are in need of an advocate.”

CASA of Portage County is always welcoming more volunteers. Following the March 11 class, there will be another group beginning their training in April. So far two people have filled out applications for the April training. 

Looking forward, Walden said she’d like to focus on the sustainability of the CASA program and develop a nonprofit arm to assist with fundraising for the program.

“We want to have that fundraising arm and develop a board that would oversee all of that to make sure the program stays in operation and can continue to provide advocacy for the kids in this county,” Walden said.

Those interested in volunteering with CASA of Portage County can contact Walden by phone at 330-298-3910 or email at [email protected] and keep up with their Facebook page here.

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Maria McGinnis is a contributing writer for The Portager.