Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Kids were everywhere — getting fresh haircuts, slipping on new shoes, checking out popular books and going through backpacks stuffed with classroom supplies. But this crowd of more than 400 wasn’t going through the back-to-school ritual with their parents. They’re among the approximately 1,600 students in the Clark County School District who are in foster care, and that day were taking advantage of a supply drive put on by the Court Appointed Special Advocates Foundation, or CASA.
The Aug. 6 event at Atelier by Square Salon in Summerlin marked the sixth year CASA has helped local foster children get ready for school. Because so many of them move from home to home and school to school, often with only what they can carry, they might lack even adequate clothing. But the organization’s work is about much more than this one day in a developing life.
“The point of a CASA is that they stay with the child regardless of placement. ... The foster home can change, the school can change, but a CASA never changes,” said Elizabeth Ham, president of the CASA Foundation in Clark County.
The 30-year-old nonprofit supports the work of volunteers who advocate for these kids in the court system and with the Department of Family Services. Ham said advocates often were the only point of stability. There just aren’t enough of them.
“We have about (3,300) kids in care, and about 300 volunteers,” she said, acknowledging that some situations are resolved before there is a need for a CASA. “We have a big enough community where we should have enough people volunteering for these kids.”
Mary Ann Price, a spokeswoman for Clark County District Court, which handles these cases and bears some responsibility for mitigating the shortage, said efforts to draw more volunteers were constant. Recently, staffers planted 300 pinwheels outside of family court to raise awareness about CASA, and they have ongoing social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. “There’s all kinds of things we’re doing to raise awareness,” Price said. “We can’t get the message out enough.”
Studies consistently show that cases involving a CASA have better outcomes than those that don’t. But closing the gap is a daunting prospect, and volunteer Kathy Espin says DFS staffers are stretched too.
“Our child welfare system is no place to raise a child,” said Espin, a CASA volunteer in Las Vegas for the past 20 years. “There are some absolute heroes working in (the system). Some of these caseworkers completely amaze you, but they are completely overloaded. … Our child welfare system is woefully inadequate for the job. As a volunteer, (at least) I get to concentrate on one case.”
Over the years, Espin has had cases that broke her heart — an adoption that didn’t go through, or a young charge who committed a crime. Whatever the outcome, she remains in touch with most of the children she has helped.
“It’s the most frustrating, aggravating, heartbreaking volunteer work you could ever love,” Espin said. “The benefits are when you have a happy ending, when that child gets reunited with her parent or adopted, and you know that we did a good job for that child. The happy endings don’t come along as often as we’d like. ... Service is my form of worship, of saying to my form of God or the universe, ‘Thank you for everything I’ve received.’
“It’s the least I can do to give back to these people who so desperately need someone to care.”
FOR ASPIRING VOLUNTEERS
CASA training will be conducted this fall at the Clark County Government Center, 500 S. Grand Central Parkway. For an introduction to the program, attend the orientation meeting that happens every third Wednesday in the center’s Pueblo Room.
Learn more about CASA at 702-455-4306 or follow volunteers on social media: CASALasVegas.
• Tuesdays: 6-9 p.m. Oct. 10, 17 and 24
• Thursdays: 6-9 p.m. Oct. 12, 19 and 26
• Saturdays: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 14 and 21
WHAT IS A CASA?
CASAs are independent advocates for foster children, and the program is open to anyone. “We are simply looking for people who care about children and have common sense. As a volunteer, you will be thoroughly trained and well supported by professional staff to help you through each case,” the national organization’s website says. The vetting process here involves a background check, 33 hours of training and a commitment to stay with the case to its conclusion. Once connected with a child, you’d be expected to talk with everyone close to him or her — family members, foster parents, teachers, health care providers, social workers, attorneys, etc. — to assess the situation. You’d keep the court updated, explain court proceedings to the child, monitor the case and recommend services for the child and family, among other tasks. Clark County volunteers may not work for the Department of Family Services and are required to be 21 or older and commit to two years.
WHY DOES ADVOCACY MATTER?
When they have a court-appointed advocate, foster children and their biological parents are more likely to be ordered by a family court judge to participate in more services. According to a 2006 Department of Justice audit on the national CASA program, those cases are more likely to close permanently through reunification or adoption. The same report found that kids with CASAs are more likely to pass all courses and less likely to have poor conduct or be expelled from school.
While volunteers work within the child welfare system to help find stable homes for foster kids, CASA Foundation President Elizabeth Ham and members of the foundation work with community partners to ensure youths in care are celebrated. Each year, the CASA Foundation hosts three main events in Las Vegas — a back-to-school event, a Christmas party with gifts, and a celebration at the end of the school year for those who completed high school despite the odds. For more about the foundation, visit casafoundationlv.org.