In 1976, Superior Court Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Washington, observed a recurring problem in the courtroom. He recognized that there was too little information available to base life-changing decisions about the safety, permanency and well-being of children. To address this problem, he raised funds to recruit and train community volunteers to speak on behalf of children in court. In 1977, a CASA pilot program was formed based on Judge Soukup’s idea. In 1982, the National CASA/GAL Association for Children was established to direct CASA’s emerging national presence. CASA reached Georgia in 1988, when Georgia CASA began and established two pilot programs.
It didn’t take long for the Chatham County’s Juvenile Court Judge, The Honorable John Beam, to realize that our community would greatly benefit from this program. Judge Beam wasted no time in establishing a committee and starting Savannah/Chatham County CASA.
In 1991, Savannah/Chatham CASA was formed. In 1993, it officially became its own 501(c)3 and soon after hired its first official executive director, Rebecca Zarada (now Lentz). Rebecca, her six successors, and the many staff members worked tirelessly to ensure the program had the support and investment necessary to train community volunteers to advocate for the children who experienced abuse and neglect in our community. Since 1991, more than 2,000 community volunteers have advocated for the best interests of our community’s children.
Celebrating 30 Years
In honor of our anniversary, we sought to identify 10 individuals who contributed to the success of the organization throughout the last 30 years. This was no easy task. I’ve spent the last month talking to past staff, board members, and volunteers to select the past board members that not only contributed their time, talent, and resources but also those who lead the organization during some of our most challenging times. We are excited to honor these 10 individuals on Thursday, October 21st at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. Our selected honorees contributed to the growth and success of Savannah CASA.
However, there are so many more who served as board members, CASA volunteers, and staff that also deserve recognition. We are working hard to compile that list and invite each and every one of them to our celebration so that we may honor them as well. Unfortunately, access to older files are limited. We need help to ensure all involved in the history of our organization are present at our event. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have current contact information of any past board members, staff, or supporters.
Last but not certainly not least, Savannah CASA would not exist without our volunteers. They are at the heart of our mission. This is why in addition to our anniversary celebration, we will host a special breakfast celebration focused solely on their contributions on Tuesday, November 2nd. This event will be closed to the public and free for all current CASA volunteers and their guests. We are excited to announce that Judge LeRoy Burke will be our keynote speaker at our breakfast.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Kate Blair
When Opportunity Knocks...
This summer, I had the opportunity to take part in the Shepherd Internship program, which is designed to pair college students with non-profit organizations to educate them as to the complexities of poverty. In my initial interviews to determine my placement, I expressed that I wanted to be doing something with children, as I have always felt most fulfilled when I am helping to better their lives. When I learned that I was matched with CASA, I was elated. With just a minimal understanding of what a CASA was, I knew that my summer was going to be special.
Through friends and colleagues, I learned that CASA staff are leaders in their community with an intrinsic motivation to aid and support children living in foster care. I found this mission honorable and inspiring and felt privileged to have this chance. Even from miles away on our Zoom calls, I was inspired by those at Savannah, CASA. Their passion for, and commitment to, children radiated through the computer screen. They speak with concern and act with care.
Advocacy Outside of the Courtroom
From my very first day, CASA staff demonstrated that advocating for a child is multi-faceted. While advocacy is central to the work, advocating for children is not just speaking on their behalf in a courtroom - there are so many more ways to support a child in foster care. For example, the mega fundraiser, “Dancing with Savannah Stars” which assured that there are resources to do the work. Likewise, agency-wide discussions and pandemic-era Zoom “coffee hours” fostered an environment where individuals were encouraged to learn from each other’s personal and professional perspectives. In addition, CASA has an extremely vibrant social media presence which connects the wider community to inspire others to include them in CASA’s mission.
An Unforgettable Experience
There are many direct and indirect service components to non-profit work and, each day, colleagues at Savannah CASA join together to achieve support and stability for the children. As a young professional, I am thankful for my summer’s opportunity to learn from these inspiring - (and inspired!) – colleagues. I will continue to use their lessons in my own life’s work. I will never forget this experience as my heart is forever touched by these summer colleagues who devote talent and time to the success of children in foster care.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Alaina Ratanapool
Shutdown! We Switch to Online
Like everyone else, the pandemic drove us out of our brick and mortar classrooms and into the virtual world. For the last year, I’ve facilitated our CASA Pre-Service Training with a completely new way of learning core content and interacting as a group. Initially, this was a challenging and confusing endeavor, but ultimately, it proved to be just the kind of engaging social interaction many of us were needing at the time. Similar to me, many of the trainees were working from home. We looked forward to our time together on Zoom each week.
The online training provided the flexibility to help us recruit volunteers who may not have otherwise been able to participate due to their work schedules, lack of child care, health concerns, etc. Checking in with each other in “class” and interacting over the Internet for homework helped us maintain our sense of belonging to a community. In fact, our very first self-proclaimed “COVID Class” created a private group on Facebook to stay connected!
My story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that switching to online training did block some older, deeply experienced participants. With regret, I recall a woman with a Ph.D. in Education coupled with decades of experience working in the NYC school system and now newly retired to Savannah. She felt uncomfortable with the online process and, sadly, we lost her contribution as a future CASA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - ERIC HORNFELD
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. My choice to join the CASA team last November was much like many decisions in my adult life - overanalyzed but well calculated. Up until this point in my career, I have always worked in healthcare as a design and marketing professional. When thinking about why this position as CASA’s Communications and Development Manager was right for me, I had to think outside of my regular 9 to 5 experiences.
Jennifer with the Savannah CASA team (left) and with single moms at a Savannah Bananas game (right).
This New Journey. I am still processing the experience of shifting my full-time focus to something closer to my after-hours passion of helping families in need. Though it has not been the easiest shift due to the pandemic and various learning curves, I have been able to gain a wealth of knowledge. Getting to know co-workers and a new work culture over Zoom plus managing CASA’s largest fundraiser from home has been a lot to process. Whether on Zoom or in person, the zeal that our team has for child advocacy is undeniable. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to use my years of design and marketing experience to highlight the great work that Savannah CASA does every day in the lives of children and families. Our team is so passionate and their enthusiasm cultivates a culture that is refreshing for me.
Beyond the culture, my new position gives me fulfillment on so many levels outside of my professional goals. It makes me happy to know that our collective efforts are really making a difference in the world and in the lives of children. We all have a purpose here on earth and being able to see that purpose in action is one of life’s greatest gifts. I am glad that I chose CASA and I hope that my work will help us impact as many lives as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Jennifer T. GRaham
Acknowledging the Loss of First Families
Mother’s Day was this past Sunday. My boys were incredibly sweet to me, of course. They bought me a gift and went out of their way to make sure I didn’t have any work around the house. I felt deeply loved. But despite the joy of the day, each year I carry a profound loss within me. It’s not my own loss but the loss experienced by my sons and their first mothers. I think writer and adoptive parent, Jody Landers, captures it best, “A child born to another woman calls me mom. The depth of the tragedy and the magnitude of the privilege are not lost on me.” When this holiday comes around, I find myself reflecting on the loss carried by those I love so deeply.
Complicated Reasons for Loss. As an adoptive family, we are often asked about our sons’ adoption stories. We won’t share those with anyone as they are theirs alone to share. However, like all adoptions, theirs was a result of loss - the loss of family, connection, and history. All adoption stories are complicated and as unique as the people involved. Adoptions can be the result of death, strained relationships, generational trauma, substance use disorder, mental illness and, sadly, they may result from broken government systems, trafficking, racism, and poverty. One thing I know, adoption should always be the last option. Every child should be given every chance to be raised by their biological family.
When people talk about adoption, the adoptive parents are typically celebrated. We say things like, “Aren’t they wonderful? What a beautiful gift they gave to those children!” This comes from a good place, of course, but it misses a core truth that the child and their first family have experienced profound loss. In fact, society often speaks poorly of first families – making generalized assumptions about poor choices they might have made that resulted in their children entering the child welfare systems. But as our CASA volunteers and staff can attest – it is never as black and white as that. Each family’s story is complicated and rooted in trauma. In our experience, parents love their children and do not want to cause harm to them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Kate Blair
For most of a year, I’ve settled into a niche as an Interviewer for CASA. Having spoken with 70+ volunteer applicants to date, I enter into each (Zoom) interview with a mixture of eagerness and curiosity. Who will I meet? What life journey has led a person to this moment? The profiles that emerge of a CASA applicant have both surprised and delighted me. I am aware that my views reflect my own journey. With this caveat, I believe I’ve discerned “patterns” that may answer the question, who is the typical volunteer?
To be a CASA Volunteer, this special individual will have a blend of traits. On one hand, the applicant will display an aptitude (or tolerance!) to do research and to transform data into monthly reporting and, eventually, a document to be reviewed by a judge. They will act as an Advocate, one who tracks school progress, healthcare and multiple social services to assure that these align for the child’s best interest. On the other hand, this same person will speak from a reservoir of emotional intelligence. They will have the “heart” to be a supportive presence for a child during highs and lows of family disruption and show up, when needed, with a kind word.
To illustrate my point, during the first weeks of January, CASA staff were preparing for the initial volunteer training of the year. Following a pause for the holidays, my colleague, Teresa, and I were working full-steam ahead, juggling a flurry of applications to fill up the virtual classroom. Teresa hit the phones and coordinated the interview schedules. She then stepped back, I stepped forward, ready to log in and meet whoever shows up. This snapshot in time reinforced my growing perception of patterns – that the volunteer applicant will certainly display “heart” and, in addition, will likely have travelled along one of these life journeys. As I log in, who will I meet?
The Woman/Man in Uniform: As Zoom opens up, I immediately recognize the no-nonsense demeanor of the current (or newly retired) military staff. They are direct in speech, and answer the standard CASA interview questions with a clear-eyed approach as how to get a task done. They have moved around a lot but expect to be in Savannah “for a while”. Elevated above all, however, is a deep desire to connect with, and contribute to, their new community.
The Young Adult: This applicant always surprises me. The Young Adult is not much passed their 21st birthday, but has “been waiting all my life” for the opportunity to be a CASA. This young person readily expresses views on social justice, likely comes from a large family and speaks warmly about caring for, and supporting, another. They possess a mature outlook on life that is remarkably atypical for one so young.
The Educator: Our Educator is an uber-skilled professional with multiple layers of knowledge on child development and family dynamics. In addition, the years of instruction have trained them to be deft coach, able to nudge two steps forward after someone falls one step back during hard learning processes for both children and adults alike. The Educator is a devoted believer that to enhance any community, all children must have a shot to reach their potential.
The Survivor: To this day, I am astonished at the CASA applicant who has passed through early traumatic experiences to emerge with almost supernatural strength and insight. During our discussion, the Survivor will repeatedly reference their process of recovery from trauma and how horrid experiences led to crucial character-building. Reflecting back in time, the Survivor is resolute that they don’t want a child to ever be alone, without a voice, during a time of fear and disorientation.
The Community Builder: At first, this applicant appears demure. They may work in an office, run a small business or be a homebody with grown children. Their life is not quiet, yet the Community Builder describes feeling compelled “to move heaven and earth” for a vulnerable child. They are almost gleeful that, after years of hoping to be a CASA, a moment in their busy life has finally arrived. Motivation is framed as a big picture – being a CASA helps build our beloved community by raising up the most vulnerable among us.
Is There a Typical CASA volunteer?
To my surprise, yes and no. Yes, because each person, without exception, speaks with “heart”. This singular trait doesn’t vary and connects all of us at CASA with a shared motivation to help a vulnerable child. Broadly speaking, there are also “patterns” of backgrounds. If the CASA Woman in Uniform met the CASA Survivor on River Street, would they recognize each other? Probably not. But if they learn that they are both CASAs, a world of commonality opens up. This moment begins to answer, who is the “typical” volunteer? They are our fellow neighbor, whose life journey compels them to lend a hand, and heart, to a child in foster care.
An Unexpected gift for a casa intern
I began my internship with Savannah CASA the first week of January. At the time, I was completely and utterly unsure of the field I was entering as an intern. I did not have much knowledge of what CASA did for the community, nor of the myriad of situations that a foster child may experience. I did, though, have a lot of compassion to those in need. I initially thought that my experiences, volunteer hours, and educational training would be sufficient to accomplish my goals at CASA. I was ready to dedicate myself to hard work and long hours of helping others cope with their personal situations. I believed that the men, women, and children involved in the different specialties of CASA would value me due to my life’s journey. I never expected I would need them too.
The Unfolding Lesson
During my second week of interning, I attended the Family Treatment Court (FTC). FTC is a parental skills and rehabilitation program for young parents whose children entered the foster care system due to their substance use disorder. When I observed FTC for the first time, I marveled at how each parent was open and vulnerable. I felt proud of them for their struggle to improve their lives. I cried “happy tears” to see how hard they worked to get their lives under control to be reunited with their children.
I know that personal biases have blocked my understanding of substance use due to growing up in a home where my mom was addicted to drugs. For years, I’ve known I was affected. Due to our tumultuous relationship, I know that my heart was often closed to expressing any form of vulnerability. Sitting in FTC and admiring the young parents’ efforts to correct their behavior, I wondered to myself why in the last fifteen years did I never try to understand my mother’s own struggles. As a CASA Intern, a wife, and as a mother myself, I love praising the FTC parents for their accomplishments, no matter how small of a step they achieve. My heart was warmed to see them smile. And I was struck with a realization - if I could encourage strangers to keep moving forward with their lives, why couldn’t I do the same for my own mother?
And This I Learned...
After a month at CASA, I reached out to my mom. I felt odd abandoning my hiding place of comfort and safety, but I wanted to tell my mom that she deserved to be forgiven and that I was very sorry it took me so long. My CASA experience helped me see a personal struggle that I had inside but didn’t realize was even there. Throughout my adult life, I was looking for something that would grant me satisfaction and joy, and most of all give me a sense of purpose. CASA helped me open up. The men, women, and children CASA serves deserve applause for their efforts and determination. Despite the difficult struggles with their destructive substance use, they strive to persevere, to not give up, and most importantly to decide that their lives can be meaningful again. CASA helps change lives. I have found that helping other people is one way to be truly happy. I love CASA because positive things happen all the time, even unexpectedly.
Learn more about how to talk about substance use disorder.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - TIFFANY STACY
Tiffany Stacy is an intern for Savannah/Chatham CASA, and is a Georgia native from Columbus. She is an Army spouse and is currently attending Troy University online pursing a BS in Social Work and is set to graduate this Spring. Tiffany plans to pursue an Advanced-Standing and Accelerated Master of Social Work at Louisiana State University this Fall. She and her husband, Nick, are parents of two rambunctious children, Talia and Mason, and have three fur-babies, Beau, Kermie, and Nana.
You'll forever be my casa
I began working as an Advocacy Coordinator for Savannah CASA in August 2020. As a newbie, I received current cases from my colleagues that would help me learn about many aspects of my new role. One of those cases was a 17-year-old young lady on the cusp of aging out of foster care named Jasmine*.
To learn more about the case, I met with Jasmine’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Saundra Poole, a deeply dedicated volunteer of nearly 4 years. Saundra provided me with important case-related information documenting Jasmine’s time in foster care which began when she was fourteen years old. I listened in awe as Saundra discussed this young lady’s journey with such passion and detail. It was as if she’d known her all of her life - her likes, dislikes, areas of emotional vulnerability, and her hopes for the future. During our conversation, I saw firsthand Saundra’s dedication and professionalism. As a past Savannah CASA intern and in my work as a Mental Health Counselor for 5 years, I had a basic understanding of the role of a CASA, but never before did I fully understand the extraordinary support that a CASA can provide in the life of a vulnerable child. At 17 years old, Jasmine was at an important junction to begin the transition into the adult world and Saundra was there at hand helping to guide her along this uncertain path. That day, I came to understand the true impact of a CASA volunteer.
More Instability - Except for CASA. Over the course of the next four months, Jasmine moved between the homes of four family members. My heart ached because Jasmine was once again experiencing an unstable living situation. But there remained one very bright light in Jasmine’s life - the durability and consistency of her relationship with her committed CASA volunteer, Saundra.
Despite Jasmine’s case being closed in the court system, her relationship with Saundra continues today. Jasmine turns to Saundra whenever she is in distress. She reaches out whenever she needs advice on how to maneuver life’s challenges. Over the course of three years, Jasmine and Saundra built a strong and caring relationship. Saundra stood out in Jasmine’s life as a reliable voice of support. For Jasmine, Saundra was no longer her foster care advocate, she is her beloved Godmother.
*name changed due to confidentiality
About the author - Ja'Nae Brown
a casa changes a child's story
The children’s parents lived separately in two different states and each had their own court-ordered case plans to regain custody. To the father’s credit, he progressed towards the compliance of his goals more rapidly and eventually regained custody of the oldest child, with conditions. This court plan gave the father an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to care for one child before entrusting the other two siblings to his care. Pam provided guidance and encouragement to the father to accomplish his goals. Despite that in 2020 Pam’s work was constrained by the COVID pandemic, she persisted by continuing socially-distanced, in-person visits to assure the father was taking good care of his eldest child.
Unfortunately, then came red flags. Pam was on hand to notice the lapses, prompting her and the case manager to address these significant concerns. Though reunification is always the ultimate goal, in this case Pam documented and reported that the father’s situation was deteriorating.
A CASA Volunteer Can Turn a Child’s Story Around
During these long months, Pam had never given up on the mother to have her accomplish her case plan goals to be reunited with the children as well. The mother first demonstrated she was on the road to success by completing her substance use disorder treatment program. She met with her children regularly. She obtained stable housing and gainful employment. Pam made trips out of state to meet with the mother in order to document her improving circumstances, not letting preconceived opinions interfere with increasingly positive observations. Pam ensured that the courts and all parties had records and photographs to inform the court of the mother’s progress. Pam’s efforts prompted a turnaround in the children’s circumstance. At the next hearing, the Judge accepted Pam’s recommendation and returned custody of all three siblings to their mother.
Dedication of Our CASA Volunteers
To change a child’s story, we need strong CASA advocates who recognize and document when a child’s life circumstances alter. With eyes and ears on the ground, a CASA’s recommendations can adroitly shift to recognize an evolving situation. As Pam demonstrated so forcefully, CASAs play this crucial role, of speaking up – sometimes as a lone voice – to advocate for the child’s best interest. With this support, the children become stronger and persevere to overcome the trajectory of their initial story.
Remember, a CASA is the voice for the child. We integrate ourselves into a child’s case, chronicle the minute details of their lives and stand up to be heard. In Pam’s case, the three children eventually were reunified with their mother and today they are thriving and happy. Pam stays in touch, further strengthening the bond that formed over time. Even though 2020 presented barriers unlike any we could have imagined, Pam found creative ways to help the three siblings settle into their permanent home.
Our CASAs work tirelessly to support over 375 children who live in foster care. Today, Pam is again displaying her dedication to help another child find a permanent home - this time with her grandparents. Again, we rejoice, she’s almost there!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - SHARON NEWMAN
FIGHTING FOR TANYA
Painstaking Steps to Support Every Child. Earlier this year, a committed CASA volunteer, Amy Potter, came to me with concerns of neglect in a foster home. Naturally, we sprang into action. Of course, “springing into action" looks different in our minds than in reality, especially in the bureaucratic world of child welfare. Setting up the support systems to help a child newly entering foster care requires a series of small, thoughtful, and calculated steps. It requires great consideration given to the many moving parts while always keeping the child in the center of our decisions. This process leaves you wanting to scream “how isn't anyone else going crazy over this??!!"
We are. Much of the work that takes place behind the scene to help a child hinges on patience - waiting for calls backs, locating open homes, and lots of paperwork. After countless contacts, written reports, and investigations coupled with sleepless nights and a few tears, a child is finally housed somewhere safe. And yet there are still no guarantees of success. At CASA, we can only hope that our efforts facilitate a placement that gives the child a safe and healthy foster home. Our CASA volunteers help to promote success by speaking with the family who is expecting the child into their home. They talk about the challenges that may arise, join in with excitement and nervousness and, above all, share mutual hope for the child’s wellbeing.
Tanya’s Unsettled Journey. “Tanya” had been living in a neglectful foster home for over a year and she needed a more loving and supportive placement. Amy and I were discouraged by others who work in this complex system because they felt the battle to remove her would be too difficult. But we pressed on for Tanya’s sake. Despite all odds, we were successful in overcoming enough obstacles to have Tanya moved into a new home with first-time foster parents - brimming with optimism and love. Tanya was praised, given room to express herself and, importantly, given boundaries. Her grades improved and a closeness began to form with the family. Tanya was thriving.
Still we, along with her foster family, were pleading for counseling services for this vulnerable child. Time went by and soon Tanya’s underlying trauma began to express. The foster family needed services to help her, but the support was insufficient. Each incident prompted us to urge the Department of Family and Child Services (DFCS) to intervene. But in a system strained by too much work for too few caseworkers, the help didn’t come fast enough.
Tanya’s outbursts became physical and she endangered herself and others in the home. An altercation during the heat of a particularly bad episode spurred DFCS to move Tanya – again – into a new foster home after barely a month.
What is Success for a Child in Foster Care. It is nearly impossible to know the outcome of a child’s story while still in the middle. We hope, pray, and work towards a stable, loving, and peaceful home where a child feels safe and the foster family can meet her or his needs. Tanya’s second foster family provided her with more stability in that brief month than she had known in her nine years but they were not provided with the tools to be successful.
The child welfare system is overburdened and underfunded. It can be incredibly discouraging to do this work when you are faced with what appear to be unsurmountable obstacles. Our CASA volunteers are passionate and committed individuals who do not give up because they believe deeply that children in foster care deserve the very best. When Amy and I talked over Tanya’s wellbeing after the latest transition between foster homes, she was despondent, thinking she had failed Tanya in some way. She feared that removing her from the initial foster home, then into another and now, yet another caused further trauma. As Amy’s coordinator, I expressed the positive difference she made by fighting for Tanya and removing her from harmful circumstances.
The difficult part of what we do as CASA staff and volunteers, is that we cannot predict a child’s future. With our most earnest efforts combined with experience, we make decisions with the information at hand and go from there. Tanya’s story didn't have the happy ending we had hoped for, or did it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - SUSAN RYNCAVAGE