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CASA volunteers lend watchful eyes and open hearts to foster children

Towson ceremony welcomes new crop of child advocates

By Steve Jones

4:12 PM EDT, March 20, 2012

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Abused and neglected children often wind up in foster care, and while they're given love and comfort by their foster families, they also often need someone to watch over facets of their lives.

In a swearing-in ceremony at Towson's Historic Courthouse March 12, several local residents were among the seven who volunteered to take on that role as newly-appointed Court Appointed Special Advocates.

Christy Valeri of Timonium knows the challenges of the job. As one of the newest CASAs, Valeri realizes the children she'll be working with haven't had the advantages of her four grown kids.

"My kids have been so fortunate, but you don't realize who else is out there," said Valeri, a longtime volunteer at her children's school, Stoneleigh Elementary.

"These kids have been let down by a lot of adults," she said. "As a CASA, you make sure that every adult in the child's life is doing what they are supposed to do. I intend to be there for these kids, and I'm ready for the challenge."

Before being sworn in, seven new CASAs went through a thorough screening interview, then 30 hours of classroom training and up to three hours of court observation.

"We want to make sure they know the responsibilities of the position," said Susan Daddio, a licensed social worker and executive director for CASA of Baltimore County for the past 11 years.

"The training is also a screening," she said, "because we get to see them interact and watch their responses to what they are told."

Each volunteer has now been assigned to one child who has been removed from his or her original home and placed in foster care.

The CASA volunteers will gather information and make recommendations to supervisors and judges about the needs of each child. Between court hearings, they ensure the child remains safe and cared for, and advocate for any additional services that the child needs.

Baltimore County's program is one of 950 CASA outlets nationwide. The diverse group of volunteers range in age from 21 to 80, and their education levels go from GED to PhD.

CASA of Baltimore County is a private nonprofit that welcomes the watchful eyes and kind hearts of volunteers, who work to make a difference in the way abused and neglected children are treated.

CASA volunteers are expected to see their assigned child at least once a month. They have access to all information in case files. Every six months, they write a report and make recommendations about needs, then appear in court to support the child.

"The main reason that a child is in foster care is neglect," Daddio said. "Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are also reasons why a child will be pulled from the home. Our emphasis is in getting a child out of foster care and making sure the child is safe."

Across Maryland, some 7,000 children, ranging from newborns to age 21, are in foster care. The majority of foster children hail from Baltimore City, but the county currently has 580 youths in that situation.

According to Daddio, CASA is able to serve 200 children annually.

"There is a great need for men to step up and work in the program, especially minority men," Daddio said. "Our volunteers can make a big difference. The members of the new class are all parents themselves, and they are very mature, bright and energetic. They'll do a great job."

John Kirby of Catonsville is one of two male volunteers in the new CASA class. Kirby, whose own three children are in their 20s, can't wait to get started.

"I saw a recent article in (The Baltimore Sun) about this program, and thought it would allow me to make an impact in a disadvantaged child's life," he said. "I have a weak spot for kids who, through no fault of their own, have been dealt a bad hand.

"These kids have a lot of issues, and a lot of people, in their lives," Kirby said. "It was eye-opening to learn in the training that there are a lot more kids than CASAs in the system.

"It's up to the CASA to make sure that the child is getting what they're entitled to," he said. "My goal is to ensure that everyone in this child's life is contributing to their welfare."

The CASA volunteers work with a child until their case is resolved or until they "age out" of the program. The majority of foster children are able to find a safe and permanent home through adoption before they reach the age of 21. Most current foster children are in their early teens.

"If they are in a family, they will be better off," Daddio said. "We want a decent educational and support system for them."

While volunteers don't have to be parents, it helps that they know how to tend to the needs of the young.

Teresa Fernandez has plenty of experience in that area. The Perry Hall resident raised her five children, then added five more youngsters to her family when she became a child sponsor for Compassion International.

She has traveled to El Salvador, Tanzania and the Philippines to meet three of her children, and hopes to visit the others in the Dominican Republic and Colombia.

"I wanted to help children in the United States by becoming a CASA," Fernandez said. "A lot of these children live in poverty and are abused. I want to let them know that they can go on and do something positive with their lives. "

Fernandez believes that foster children need attention and love. That drove her to make an impact.

"Sometimes when you say the right thing at the right moment, it gives them the encouragement that they need," she said. "Kids remember things you say, and carry it with them for a long time."

Each of the new advocates had different reactions during the training and swearing-in ceremony. Kirby was "ready to roll," while Valeri was nervous.

"We all want to succeed for the child," Valeri said. "When I started the training, I thought there would be more mentoring. But you are advocating for the kids, and really getting to know their parents, their foster family, social workers, and teachers. We thoroughly research their situations and write reports before the court proceedings."

Fernandez, the only one of the three to receive her child's case file at the training, had a stronger reaction.

"After the supervisor showed me the file, I sat down and cried," she said. "Then, I prayed. It's a great opportunity to put this child first."

To learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer, call 410-828-0515 or go to http://www.casabaltco.org.