CASA celebrates 40 years as 'the voice of children'

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The Sheltered Picnic Area at Goddard Park was alive with excitement on the late afternoon of Wednesday, July 24.

In honor of their 40-year anniversary, RI Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) staff members, volunteer advocates, friends and potential new volunteer advocates joined together as they celebrated their cause of helping children in need.

Everyone was in good spirits as they chatted amongst themselves, enjoying the wonderful food that was offered – from pulled pork, sandwich wraps, Spanish rice, pizza strips, salad, bottled water, cookies and sheet cake.

RI CASA is an advocacy organization that stands up for children and youth facing the harsh realities of being abused and neglected. These kids are in the custody of, or are otherwise involved with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DYCF). RI CASA helps those children by providing an advocate to be at each individual child’s side.

In attendance was Andrew Johnson, the Director of CASA. He was open and appreciative of those who showed up to share their experiences.

“My job is the most wonderful job in Rhode Island,” he said cheerfully. He said he loved being able to come to work and be with people who “want to be there” and give out of the kindness of their hearts.

“Volunteers are here because they want to be, because they want to help,” Johnson said. He also mentioned how much the volunteers “make a difference” and that it is important to have “more eyes and ears” for the children. Johnson also described how many volunteers stay, on average, for two to two-and-a-half years, and that many of the children – who have since grown up since interacting with a CASA volunteer – still try to remain in contact with them.

“Many of the volunteers have gone to students’ high school graduations after their case was closed, or they aged out of the system,” Johnson said.

Michael Forte, Chief Family Court judge, calls the RI CASA “vital.” Forte talked about the diverse amount of people over the years that volunteered for CASA, many of who that used to work for CASA at one time.

“We take volunteers from all fields” he said. Forte feels CASA has been a big help to many children, especially since the DCYF caseload is so overwhelmed.

Both Johnson and Forte discussed the process of becoming a volunteer – the training, background checks, what to expect in an interview, DYCF laws and sit-ins on court proceedings dealing with “child welfare.”

Sitting at one of the side tables at the gathering were two individuals who play a key part in CASA’s role advocating on behalf of the state’s children in need.

Shilpa Naik, a CASA attorney, calls the program, “good,” and that she has been with CASA for nine years and was “something I always wanted to do.”

“Kids need a voice,” she said. “Kids deal with trauma.”

She adds that many of the children that are in DCYF care, “don’t want to be there.” She goes on to say that social workers and attorneys may have the best interest of the child at heart, but ultimately the decision regarding what happens in their case, and who ends up with custody of the child, is up to the judge. To Naik, this aspect was troublesome as sometimes the environment the child goes back to may not be the best one.

Naik believes these kids need help and proper support, and that they can go a long way with someone in their corner. She commended RI CASA and how good they have been for children.

DCYF social caseworker Nicole Mahoney also shares the same feelings as Naik. Mahoney works with children and their families, but only a select few. These few cases are deemed to be the most severe and needing the most help.

“Cases that involve dependency, abuse, and neglect” she said, are considered the most severe.

“I’m from Providence, I work with kids from Providence,” she said as she relates to working with children and families from her home city, as it is beneficial as she knows how the city, and how to find the correct resources the people in her cases need. She said that even in the worst cases she deals with, there are resources available to help.

“If a parent has a dependency issue, the state can help them,” she said. “We are there with them in any assistance they need.”

Volunteer Kathleen Dystera has been a volunteer for 16 years and said, “I love it,” when her asked about her feelings on CASA. “I had another job, Call for Action on Channel 12. We helped people who had a problem.” She also said that working for Call for Action “shared similarities” with volunteering for CASA. Kathleen hopes that CASA will expand, adding more volunteers and social workers. “The children need somebody to be a steady positive influence in their lives,” she said.

As the picnic neared the end, Andrew Johnson made an announcement, personally thanking all the volunteers. We could not have done it without you,” he said. “I have the greatest job in the world.”

He also said that because of all the hard work and help given by the volunteers to the children, that children in state care achieve “permanency more quickly.”

“CASA is seen as a jewel in the court system,” Johnson said, and invited people to sign up for either the two training session for volunteering in September or October. He also mentioned a special day session in January as an option as well.

After serving of cake, prizes were offered, such as Dunkin Donut gift cards, Visa cards and even a chance to win an Amazon Kindle.

The non-profit organization affiliated with RI CASA, the Friends of RI CASA, had members present too. This group helps raise funds for CASA cases. President Tony Bucci has been with Friends of RI CASA for more than a year, and has no plans on leaving anytime soon. He said that a volunteer’s agenda “is the best interest of the children.” He understands “how much work it is,” and is “very appreciative of the volunteers.” When it comes to volunteer advocates, Bucci believes they are the “voice of the children.”

Kristina Deangelis Poli, also with Friends of RI CASA is an event coordinator and social worker.

“I first started off as a CASA recruiter, then social worker, and now run events for CASA,” she said. She has been with Friends of RI CASA since 2008. She speaks of the “End of Summer Celebration” fundraiser, which is occurring on September 9, 2019.

Rhode Island singer Steven Palumbo will be performing from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. will be “2nd to None,” a Rhode Island-based band. The event will be cost $40 for adults to attend, and children 10 and under will be $20. The event will be at the Bonnet Shores Club in Narragansett. The proceeds from this fundraiser will go directly to benefit RI CASA.

Another foundation called Dream Come True has been a help to children as well. “It grants individual wishes for children, their needs and wants,” Poli said. “Donations are needed,” she adds, and that Friends of RI CASA are also looking to find sponsors.

The picnic turned out to be a success and brought many caring hearts together to spread love and awareness. Their job is still not yet done as they are looking for new volunteer candidates every day.

To be eligible, volunteers must be at least 21 years old, have a valid driver’s license, pass a background check, have effective communication skills and partake in 30 hours of training. Two separate training sessions will be available in the evening in September and October. According to Andrew Johnson, there will also be a day session beginning in January. They will be held at the Garrahy Judicial Complex in Providence.

For more information contact Cheryl Martone at 401-822-6706 or at 401-527-8630. Application packets can be found and downloaded at www.friendsofricasa.org/volunteer.

For more information regarding the End of Summer Celebration on Sept. 9, please contact Kristina Deangleis Poli at 401-996-0184 or contact her by email at KristinaKPoli@gmail.com.

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