Annie Rasquin is executive director of the First District Court CASA program, which serves Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties. Photo by Maire O’Neill/ladailypost.com
By MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Daily Post
Carolyn Stewart has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster children in the Los Alamos are for nine years, a volunteer position that makes a huge difference in their lives and is extremely rewarding for her.
Stewart is one of 45 CASAs in the First Judicial District, which encompasses Los Alamos, Rio Arribe and Santa Fe Counties. Fifteen more are being trained but many more are needed to help more than 150 children in the three counties.
“As a CASA, I work with foster children who are temporarily under the custody of the Children, Youth and Families Department. For me, it is very rewarding when a child is returned to their family,” said Stewart, who relocated to Los Alamos from Washington in 2008 and volunteers for 12 to 20 children per month.
Carolyn Stewart has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster children since 2008. Photo by Maire O’Neill/ladailypost.com
Rasquin explained that CASA volunteers participate in many different activities both within and outside the courtroom setting. They interact with the children, their family members, social workers, foster caregivers, and others, and because they are only involved with one or two cases at a time, they can concentrate on and better understand the individual needs of the child.
“The CASA program gives foster children someone in their corner who’s not being there to be paid,” Rasquin said. She added that CASAs become familiar with the child’s cultural environment, family dynamics, specific needs and concerns, and the progress of any court-ordered therapies.
“Judges really listen to and rely on CASAs. They become the eyes and ears of the court,” Rasquin said, “They gather information from everyone in a foster child’s life, making sure the child get services such as rehabilitation, medical care, and educational assistance when needed. This helps the court to better understand each child’s needs.”
Stewart said she submits both written and oral reports to the court as well as recommendations for specific services which would benefit the child, but a judge decides whether the child will be reunited with their family, have a permanent guardian, or be legally freed for adoption.
CASA volunteers receive 35 hours of training, including homework and court observations. They learn about the child protective services system, the judicial process in abuse and neglect cases, the CASA’s role in gathering, monitoring, and reporting information, cultural and diversity issues, the impact of mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence and poverty on family dynamics. They receive 12 hours of training annual through monthly inservice programs, conferences and reviewing relevant material.
“There’s no typical CASA volunteer”, Rasquin said. “Prospective volunteers can ask themselves is they have a qualities such as a passionate concern for children, a genuine desire to help, the ability to remain objective, and the maturity to deal with emotional situations.”
Volunteers must be 21 or older and need to have access to transportation and a flexible schedule as well as a willingness to devote at least a year to complete an assigned case. They must also pass a criminal and CPS background check. Applicants are required to complete an application and
provide three personal references.
“The CASA office functions really well. Annie (Rasquin) and the staff provide the volunteers with a terrific support system,” Stewart said. “So many children need help and this is a huge job.”
Rasquin, a licensed social worker with an extensive background in clinical supervision and infant mental health, has worked for the past decade in early intervention and behavioral health specializing with trauma impacted children and families. She has also worked as the director of the Family Services Program with TeamBuilders and program director of the Las Cumbres Community Infant Program. Her own volunteerism includes hospital fundraising, relief work in Bangladesh, and emergency first response. She was assigned to Los Alamos as a paramedic during the Cerro Grande.
Stewart and Rasquin spoke of other ways people can assist the program besides being a CASA, including volunteering with clerical work in the office, making quilts for children, donating gas cards for CASAs and of course, donating financially to the program.
“It costs about $1,800 to support a CASA kid for one year, but without this kind of intervention, children in the foster care system are more likely to face emotional and physical health problems in the future. Many of them end up homeless, undereducated, or in trouble with the law,” Rasquin said.
She added that the costs of not helping are huge for the community, such as $2,000 per month for each extra month in foster care and thousands of dollars for falling behind a grade at school, recurrence of abuse, or juvenile delinquency issues.