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CASA celebrating 20 years of helping Helena-area kids in the court system

Thursday, Mar 15, 2018

Court Appointed Special Advocates for children, or CASAs, are a major component of court cases involving children who have been removed from their homes for safety purposes.

CASAs are responsible for determining what is best for the child: Should the child actually be removed from the home? Are the parents the bad actors they appear to be? Is the child damaged irreparably? Those hard questions and hard answers fall to a volunteer system that asks people to do one thing: find the truth.

For Lewis and Clark and Broadwater Counties, CASAs have been part of the system for the past two decades, a milestone the organization is celebrating at its 7th Annual Light of Hope banquet Friday in Helena. 

“We’re the advocate for the child’s best interest,” Pamela Young, co-executive director of CASA, said. “(CASAs) report to the judge at every hearing, and give their recommendations to the judge in child abuse and neglect cases.”

Young has been working with CASA for 11 years and came to the Helena program full-time in 2012. She works with the stakeholders in the mission in order to best help the most vulnerable in society.

“They get lost in the system,” Young said about the children CASAs work with. From the just born to those about to age out of the system at 18, CASAs take on all manner and form of children and their parents too.

Bill Collins helped found CASA in Lewis and Clark and Broadwater Counties 20 years ago. He’s seen plenty of joy and sadness working with people, but does his best to find the right answers to each case.

“It’s a matter of investigating the situation,” Collins said. “Talking to all pertinent parties and culminates in a written report,” in which the CASA states their suggestion to remove the child, keep parental rights, or something in between.

Collins said that CASAs stay with the case until it’s done, and in that time are able to make connections and form relationships with parents and children. Collins found the relationships with parents to be the truly heartbreaking ones. “These are young folks who grew up in the system themselves, and now these people are parents. ... They’re not evil people, they’re just broken down by life experience.”

“We have to do what’s in the best interest of the child,” Collins said.

Current Board of Directors president Alana Listoe said in her decade of working with CASA that the best interest can look different depending on the case, as the age range is so striking that it’s simply impossible to treat an 18-month-old and a 12-year-old in the same manner.

But she loves how long she gets to spend with the children.

“These kids can have three different foster families, five different case workers” in the time a CASA advocate is working with them, she said. “Often, we’re the most positive and consistent adult in the child’s life.”

And when the cases are closed, the children aren’t locked away.

“They don’t leave you,” Listoe said. “They stay with you.”

Helena Independent Record, Thomas Plank, March 15, 2018.