A stable CASA

Advocates ensure abused and neglected children don’t languish in the system

Julia Westlund, a retired Jell-O sales representative, volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Lisa Michels is supervisor of the CASA program in Butte and Glenn counties.

Julia Westlund, a retired Jell-O sales representative, volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Lisa Michels is supervisor of the CASA program in Butte and Glenn counties.


Become a CASA:
For more information on the local CASA program’s next training session, which begins Jan. 25, go to nvcss.org or call Lisa Michels at 345-1600, ext. 2130.

Abused children from broken homes often face mental, behavioral and physical health challenges into adolescence and adulthood. But even if they’ve been exposed to serious trauma, children are remarkably resilient.

“They’re just amazing,” said Julia Westlund. “A lot of them are really grown up for their age, because they’ve had to deal with a lot of things the average 10-year-old maybe doesn’t deal with. I’m impressed by them.”

Through CASA of Butte and Glenn Counties, Westlund has volunteered to work with three local children who’ve been abused or neglected. People who serve as CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates) help these children navigate the social service and legal systems and offer a steady, caring adult presence in their lives.

“It gives a voice to the child throughout their journey,” said Lisa Michels, supervisor of the local program. “They are detained by the state and due to abuse and neglect—through no fault of their own. They have not done anything wrong; it’s been done to them. To have one person in their corner helping them through that journey really makes a difference.”

Attorneys appointed by the court to represent children often have hundreds of open cases. It’s unlikely, then, that a lawyer will take a special interest and become a “really strong advocate” for an individual child unless the abuse was particularly bad, Michels said. Social workers are overburdened as well. It therefore becomes “pretty easy for these kids to get lost in the system,” she said. “One thing a CASA can do is make sure they get the services they need.”

Speaking from experience, Westlund believes that CASAs come to know more about the child they’ve been assigned—who may well have bounced between foster families and service providers—than all of the lawyers, social workers, judges and foster agencies combined. That’s because she compiles reports on the child’s history, home life and schooling and presents it for a judge’s consideration when they’re making decisions important to the child.

“Each one of those people knows a whole lot about their piece of the puzzle,” she said, “but we paint the full picture.”

The CASA concept was conceived in 1977 by a juvenile court judge in Seattle who was “concerned about making drastic decisions with insufficient information,” according to the National CASA Association. The regional program encompasses Butte, Glenn, Tehama and Shasta counties, with subsets for Butte and Glenn as well as Tehama and Shasta counties. It was launched 15 years ago by since-retired Butte County Judge Steven Howell. It’s overseen by Northern Valley Catholic Social Service.

There are about 120 CASA volunteers in the four counties and 50 in Butte, Michels said. But that’s not enough. The program serves about 100 abused or neglected children every year in Butte County alone, and there are about 400 more in the foster care system. Some counties in California have a CASA volunteer for every child.

“We don’t have enough volunteers, for sure,” said Michels. “The volunteer base is really what we’re working on. After 15 years here, people still don’t know about CASA, and that’s pretty sad.”

Butte County offers two trainings a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. The next session begins on Jan. 25.

Volunteers who complete an initial interview and screening undergo 40 hours of training, including a day in court to get familiar with the proceedings. Then a final background check is completed. “It’s a fairly involved process, to make sure the kiddos are safe,” Michels said.

Once training is complete, a CASA’s schedule is flexible. Typically, they put in four to eight hours a month, checking in with the child roughly once a week as well as calling service agencies and social workers and compiling reports.

Aside from a clean criminal record and a driver’s license, one needs only “common sense and compassion” to become a CASA, said Westlund. A misconception among prospective volunteers is that they must have experience with children or social services. Not so. Westlund, for instance, is a retired sales representative for Jell-O and had never worked with abused or neglected children prior to volunteering as a CASA.

In fact, Michels welcomes whatever experience and interests volunteers bring to the table. One CASA who came to mind goes golfing with the child; another goes fishing. It doesn’t matter how the CASA’s time with the child is spent, really, so long as a personal connection is established and maintained.

“For the most part, it’s just spending time with kids, and that’s fun,” Westlund said.

In fact, she gets a lot out of the program herself. “It’s been a far more rewarding deal for me than I expected. To have that win for the kid is really amazing.”

According to the National CASA Association, a child with a CASA is more likely to find a safe, permanent home, get more services while they’re in the foster care system and succeed in school. “If you’re really worried about homeless folks, a lot of those people were foster children,” said Westlund. “When a child has a CASA, their chances of that go down.

“If you give a kid a CASA, they really have a better chance of being a success later in life.”