'We need as many as we can get': CASA seeks volunteers to advocate for abused, neglected children

Sierra Rains
A photo of an empty courtroom at the Carter County Courthouse.

CASA of Southern Oklahoma is looking for volunteers to help be the voice for children in cases of abuse or neglect. 

“We’ve had a lot of new people volunteer this year, and we still need more, we need as many as we can get,” said CASA of Southern Oklahoma Director Ruanne DiMiceli. While there will always be a need for court appointed special advocates, the need is even greater going into 2021 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our volunteer advocates have seen firsthand the pandemic’s impact on the children and their families,” DiMiceli said. The pandemic has disrupted the support networks for many children with the suspension of education services, therapy, visitation services and more. 

“COVID-19 has disrupted this for all of our children in our community, but it’s really distributed it with our children that we serve,” DiMiceli said. CASA of Southern Oklahoma is a part of the national CASA network, consisting of 951 local community programs. 

The local organization recruits volunteers to work with abused or neglected children in Carter, Marshall, Murray, Love and Johnston Counties. DiMiceli said volunteers are needed in all five areas, but especially in the outer counties surrounding Carter County. 

CASA will be holding a total of eight training sessions to recruit new volunteers throughout 2021. The first session will begin on Jan. 4 and will be conducted virtually. 

“Our training is specialized because of COVID-19,” DiMiceli said. “The regular virtual training is an interactive online training that is excellent and the portion of the training that is usually done here in the office, we’re also doing that portion virtually for the protection of the volunteers.”

DiMiceli said the organization has taken many precautions to help further volunteers' and children’s safety, while also still providing vital services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant many visitations from the curbside or during walks outside, as well as through Zoom, FaceTime or text. 

CASA volunteers are appointed by a Judge of the 20th Judicial District and have many responsibilities surrounding a case, including investigating the circumstances of the case, making an independent evaluation of what is in the child’s best interest and monitoring the case until a permanent plan is approved by the court. 

“The volunteer advocates become the child’s voice in the court,” DiMiceli said. “The volunteer does a written report for the judge to let him know how things are going in the home or in the foster home.”

Volunteers are assigned to only one active case at a time and their volunteer status helps ensure recommendations are completely independent and concentrated solely on the needs of the child. 

Often times the volunteer advocate is the only constant in what can be a turbulent time for a child, DiMiceli said. Where many individuals involved in the case change, the CASA volunteer stays the same — becoming like a friend to the child. 

“The children come to lean on that person because they trust that person and feel safe with that person, and know that that person’s not going to leave,” DiMiceli said. “They’re a smiling face. They make sure that the child’s needs are taken care of, that their physical and emotional needs are taken care of.” 

The ultimate goal is to give children the opportunity to thrive in a safe, permanent and loving home, and end the cycles of violence or abuse that sometimes reoccur in generations of families, DiMiceli said. CASA volunteers can also follow up on cases and check in with children. 

“Our hope is to give children a brighter future and to change their story,” DiMiceli said. “Volunteers have an opportunity to speak into their life to let them know that life can be done a different way and hopefully we can have an influence in changing a generational, circular thing that happens.”

It’s not the easiest job to do, but many volunteers come away feeling like they’ve made a difference, DiMiceli said. “Our volunteers work so very hard and they become so invested in working with these children. They all say that there’s great reward in doing this,” she said. 

Individuals can sign up for the Jan. 4 training by contacting (580) 226-0009 or visiting http://www.casaok.org to fill out an application. Those who aren’t able to attend the Jan. 4 training can also contact CASA to do an individual training. More trainings will be coming up on Feb. 15 and April 5. 

“It’s something that truly makes a difference in a child’s life,” DiMiceli said. “There’s constantly a need because of domestic violence in the home, drug abuse, mental illness. The children are affected by all of this either directly or indirectly and it doesn’t go away I’m afraid to say.”