When a parent can’t take care of their child or may be abusing the child, a judge might have to step in. CASA volunteers play a key role in this process as they strive to protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to learn and grow in the security of a loving family.

They are “the eyes and ears” of the court, said Santa Cruz County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly Corsaro, when decisions have to be made in the best interests of children and teenagers who are abused or neglected.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, and the volunteers provide an “independent voice for the children,” Corsaro said.

Children and teenagers become part of the system when there is severe difficulty at home. Margie Fish, CASA coordinator, explained that they go into care “due to neglect, abuse. Here’s it’s usually drugs. Parents aren’t able to parent because they’re using drugs, or abandonment.”

Other reasons include physical abuse or sexual abuse.

Nogales native Blanca “Pupi” Moreno has been a CASA for about three years. During that time, she said, “I have handled nine children, lovely children. We usually work with foster homes or families. The first thing we want is family reunification.”

In her assigned cases, Moreno said, the parents haven’t been present in the home. “All of my cases have been with the (others in the) family of my children. There’s never a mother and father.”

Moreno spends two or three hours a week as a CASA. She was looking for a volunteer job that could make a difference in the community and happy she found this one.

Even so, she said, “It’s hard work. You struggle with destructive families and children in pain.”

Training and duties

The Santa Cruz County program, which began 21 years ago, is part of the statewide program.

However, there are not enough CASAs to assist all the children who need help.

Fish, CASA coordinator for almost eight years, said there are presently 18 volunteers, up from three when she began her job. Some are retired, while others work.

With 60 children on the dependency case roles in Santa Cruz County, the desired goal is to have one advocate for each child.

Volunteers also work with the Arizona Department of Child Safety, which formerly was CPS, or Child Protective Services. The department was reorganized and renamed by Gov. Jan Brewer several months ago.

Fish said the transition hasn’t caused her office or cases any difficulty and they haven’t seen any slowdown in work.

“The CASA program and CPS people have a really good working relationship. They really value the CASAs,” she said.

Before being appointed by the judge, the volunteers first complete 30 hours of training in Tucson or Phoenix and 15 hours with the local county program. A background check is also carried out, Fish said.

The CASA volunteer is required to write a complete report of findings and a recommendation that’s presented to the judge when the dependency case is heard.

Corsaro said that without the volunteers, “The children would lose their independent voice in court proceedings, which help the judge make her decisions. In addition, permanency could be delayed.”

Writing an official report may sound intimidating, but Fish said there’s a template to follow and instruction is given during training. What’s more, Fish provides assistance when asked.

It often begins with a call to the hotline (1-888-SOS-CHILD) for child abuse. “Someone, or several people, will call the hotline. Mandated reporters include teachers and doctors,” Fish said.

The Department of Child Safety determines what to do next. “Sometimes they’re able to work with the family and keep it as an in-home dependency where it doesn’t get as far as the courts. They can help them receive services,” she said.

If that doesn’t work, “and they have to get them out for safety reasons, that’s when we get them,” she said. At that point, they may go into foster care.

“Our goal is to find permanency for the children; whether they’re going to go back and find reunification or maybe guardianship with a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, or adoption.”

‘A good result’

Moreno said she didn’t know about CASA when she was looking for a volunteer activity. She visited several offices and a county court employee suggested she talk to Fish. That’s turned out very well.

In April, Moreno received recognition with a certificate from Gov. Jan Brewer for her work and she was named CASA of the Year for Santa Cruz County by the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

“My main job is to advocate for the children,” she said. The youngsters generally don’t have a complete picture of the situation. “They don’t understand why I’m there. The part they like is when I take them out. We go to the movies, we go to the park.

“The reason for this is that I’m trying to investigate. So they can talk, and have fun and be honest with me. So they cannot be afraid but have confidence,” Moreno said.

“The hardest I’ve handled is to visit teenagers in the detention center,” she said. Even so, “I saw they were very happy to see me and were wondering when my next visit would be.”

Volunteers are reimbursed for costs during training, but after that, there’s no reimbursement for mileage or for taking the youngsters out for fast food, to the park or to a movie.

Funding for CASA, which is offered in all 15 counties in Arizona, comes from 30 percent of unclaimed state lottery winnings.

Moreno, the mother of three adult children and grandmother of three, said she’s felt gratification from her work but has to temper the emotional part with reality. “One of the things I was told in training was, ‘Do not get attached.’ It’s impossible. Once my case is closed, I can no longer visit them or call them. I don’t like that, it’s very difficult because I have been with them for over a year.”

She encourages people to consider being a volunteer. “I recommend that the people come and inquire about being a CASA. It’s hard work, but once you see the feelings of the children and relatives,” it’s all worth it.

“If we can help, it’s going to be a good result,” she said.

To learn more, contact Fish at (520) 375-8159 or email MFish@courts.az.gov.