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CASA volunteers provide vital service for children, courts

The latest volunteers to become Bitterroot Court Appointed Special Advocates, Mike Cressler (l) and Denny Sutherland (r), were recently sworn in by District Court Judge James Haynes (center).

By Michael Howell

Two new Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children, Mike Cressler, a retired military attorney and Denny Sutherland, a retired firefighter from the National Park Service, were recently sworn in by Ravalli County District Court Judge James Haynes. They are the latest volunteers to join the Bitterroot CASA program under the direction of Julie Crane.

When the District Court assumes jurisdiction over a child, a volunteer guardian ad litem is appointed to serve the child’s best interests in the court proceedings. The CASA volunteer’s role is to ensure that the child receives proper care while in the system, and see that the child is placed in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

A guardian ad litem conducts investigations regarding all the facts, monitors the child’s situation, and makes recommendations to the court. They get to know the child, and meet the parents, foster parents, therapists, teachers, concerned friends and case workers and make recommendations as to what is in the child’s best interests. The goal of Bitterroot CASA is to prevent abused, neglected and abandoned children from becoming lost in the court system.

According to Crane, the volunteer has four essential roles. They represent the child in court; they assist the Court by investigating each case and reporting their findings and recommendations; they monitor the progress of the case as it moves through the system to reduce judicial delays and continuances; and they facilitate the services needed to maintain the active and positive growth of the child.

CASA volunteers are unique in providing information not usually available to the Court. Because of the number of dependency cases filed in

Ravalli County and dwindling resources to adequately investigate cases, judges are often compelled to make decisions based on less than complete or objective data. A CASA volunteer’s objective, unbiased recommendation in the best interest of the child is an invaluable aid to the judge once the case work begins.

The new recruits bring the number of CASA volunteers in the Bitterroot to 10 but Crane is looking to double that in order to meet the growing demand and will be hosting a new recruitment program in January. Presently, she said, there are so many children in the system that many are not getting the attention they need. Potential recruits are interviewed and then undergo a training/screening process before being selected to join the program.

Bitterroot CASA Volunteer Advocates must be at least 21 years of age, pass screening requirements, and make a two-year commitment and serve in a pre-service program of 28 hours. Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a CASA volunteer is urged to contact Crane at 961-4535 or email her at bttrcasa@msn.com.

In addition to services to abused, neglected, and abandoned children, Bitterroot CASA also advocates for delinquent youth. It also provides community education and awareness concerning issues of child abuse, neglect and child welfare policy.

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