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A Voice for Children

"Promise-keepers" advocate for Fairfax County’s abused, neglected children.

Fairfax County’s 16 newly-trained court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers raise their hands to take the CASA oath during a swearing-in ceremony at the Jennings Judicial Center in Fairfax on Feb. 21. From left, Diane Brody, Rebecca Burke, Susan Chibnall, Susan Evans, Lynn Foster, Anne Havlovick, Lauren Janik, Sheila Kinderman, Patricia Larsen, Peggy McGannon, Denise Hall, Alicia Richie, Kitchy Sawets, Ann Sherwood, Joanne Shumpert and Nicki Watts.

Fairfax County’s 16 newly-trained court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers raise their hands to take the CASA oath during a swearing-in ceremony at the Jennings Judicial Center in Fairfax on Feb. 21. From left, Diane Brody, Rebecca Burke, Susan Chibnall, Susan Evans, Lynn Foster, Anne Havlovick, Lauren Janik, Sheila Kinderman, Patricia Larsen, Peggy McGannon, Denise Hall, Alicia Richie, Kitchy Sawets, Ann Sherwood, Joanne Shumpert and Nicki Watts. Photo by Victoria Ross.

Each child who comes before Judge Thomas Mann’s Fairfax courtroom is loveable and vulnerable. There is the precocious 3-year-old whose parents are drug-addicted. A 7-year-old boy whose mentally-ill mother left him home alone to care for his infant sibling. A 12-year-old girl whose stepfather sexually abused her.

Last year in Fairfax County, there were 500 similar stories of abuse and neglect so severe they ended up in court. And while each child’s story is different, the one thing they all share is: the adults in their lives broke a sacred promise to take care of them.

How to Become a CASA Volunteer

"Volunteers listen first, then they act," said Elisa Kosarin, associate director of recruitment and training. She said volunteers get to know the child by talking with everyone in that child’s life: parents, relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers and others. They use the information they gather to inform judges what the child needs and what will be the best permanent home for that child.

"You don’t have to be a lawyer or social worker to volunteer," Kosarin said. "We welcome people from all walks of life. We are simply looking for people who care about children and have common sense."

She said all volunteers are thoroughly trained, and supported by professional staff who help CASA volunteers navigate cases.

To get started, Kosarin said prospective volunteers should attend one of CASA’s information sessions. The next information session is Saturday, March 17, 11 a.m. to noon, at Burke Centre Library. For more information about volunteer opportunities, or general information about CASA, go to Fairfax CASA’s website at www.casafairfax.org.

"When the Court gets involved when there is abuse, not only have the promises been broken; they’ve been shattered," said Mann, Chief Judge of Fairfax County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. "Broken promises are like glass, and [these children] are surrounded by it, 360 degrees of broken glass, and their feet are bare."

Mann gave his remarks during the Feb. 21 swearing-in ceremony at the Jennings Judicial Center for a group of 16 newly-trained volunteers he calls the "promise keepers:" Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers who make recommendations to the court on the best interest of the child. Volunteers submit a fact-based report to the judge based on an objective investigation involving social workers, county attorneys, teachers, etc.

CASA VOLUNTEERS are often the only adults who keep their promises, Mann said, and their objective reports are vital in helping him gain insight into the child’s circumstances.

"Imagine going to bed and you wake up on Mars, multiply that times a zillion and add it to infinity, and that’s the quantum of despair. CASA's make that Mars landing possible for these children," Mann said.

Run for the Children

On April 28, Fairfax CASA will host its second annual Run for the Children. Sponsored by Verizon, the combination 10K race and 3K run/walk offers serious runners as well as families the opportunity to enjoy the charm of the historic City of Fairfax. All funds raised will support Fairfax CASA and the work of CASA volunteers, who advocate for the best interests of over 500 abused and neglected children each year.

"This is our most important awareness-raising event and it brings in much needed funds to support the work of our volunteers," said Lisa Banks, executive director of Fairfax CASA.

Race day start is 8:30 a.m. for 10K runners and 9 a.m. for 3K run/walk participants. Runners and walkers can register before the race at www.fairfaxrunforthechildren.com

Prizes will be awarded to top finishers and all participants will receive a t-shirt and other gifts while enjoying post-race refreshments and entertainment.

To learn more, visit the race website www.fairfaxrunforthechildren.com/sponsors, or contact Lisa Banks at 703-273-3526 or lbanks@casafairfax.org.

Lisa Banks, executive director of Fairfax CASA, said volunteers are the constant and focused voice for abused and neglected children in court, and the only adult working exclusively as the child’s advocate. She said volunteers work to ensure that each child is safe from further abuse and help obtain a safe and permanent home where that child can thrive.

"Every 38 hours, an abused or neglected child in Fairfax County is placed under court protection," Banks said. "These children need advocates to protect their fundamental rights. We are truly grateful to those who choose to give their time to these children."

Fairfax CASA, which was named "One of the Best" area nonprofits by Catalogue for Philanthropy 2011-2012, has a reputation for being a critical component of Fairfax County’s abuse and neglect cases.

"They have well-deserved reputation for being rigorous and objective," said Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37), who served as Superintendent of Fairfax County’s Juvenile Detention Center and Chief Deputy of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. "CASAs are technically volunteers, but these are highly-trained, highly-qualified volunteers who are passionate about what they do."

According to Banks, many volunteers are well-educated empty-nesters searching for a way to help children.

Pam Jones, a longtime CASA volunteer from Fairfax, who has recruited others into the program, fits the CASA volunteer profile.

"I was a highly involved elementary school parent, and began looking for alternative volunteer opportunities when my son, an only child, moved to middle school," Jones said.

Jones said while volunteering in her son’s school, she was often taken aback by children whose parents showed little support of their children's learning beyond getting them to school.

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Last year, 954 participants and hundreds of volunteers, including Ratchanee Nanudorn of Alexandria, joined together in support of Fairfax CASA’s commitment to help ensure that every child has a CASA volunteer to fight for their right to a safe and permanent home.

"Many kids had no one reading to them or making a fuss when they brought home good grades. These things are superficial but I realized that children need champions in all aspects of their lives," Jones said.

Jones said CASA volunteers have to be tenacious, and a thick skin is helpful.

"To be blunt, CASA work brings very little obvious reward. There are many hours spent seeking information from often uncooperative or even hostile people…who don't always appreciate why I'm being so nosy," Jones said.

Jones said her most rewarding case was that of a toddler girl whose parents were very loving but emotionally and developmentally incapable of caring for her.

"Finding an appropriate family member to care for her was a challenge, but she eventually joined the loving home of family members in Pennsylvania; and she gained a big sister in the process," Jones said.

Pat Casciato, who worked as a CASA volunteer in Pittsburgh before moving to Reston, said she had always been interested in social work, but ended up as an executive in the business sector.

She said the most rewarding aspect of being a CASA volunteer is realizing how important the CASA report is to a judge facing competing interests.

"Judges rely on our reports for case detail that helps them make decisions that affect the children's wellbeing…I feel that CASA's involvement in this process is key," Casciato said.

She said all of the cases are challenging, but one case was especially rewarding.

"(It involved) the severe physical abuse of a nine-year-old.

AFTER THREE YEARS, several foster homes, and several social workers, the child was adopted into a loving home. The child became successful in school, even making the honor roll many times," she said.

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Denise Hall (center, standing) of Reston celebrates being a newly-appointed CASA volunteer with her husband, Glassford Hall (right), son-in-law, Michael Jackson (left); daughter Ebony, sitting with Hall’s grandson Dylan. "I’m a little nervous, but I feel like this is my calling," Hall said.

Susan Chibnall of Fairfax, a clinical psychologist and new Fairfax CASA volunteer, said she thought CASA was a worthwhile way to give back.

"I don’t have children of my own, and I have a little time to give. I think this will be a good fit."

Ann Sherwood of Great Falls, who recently retired as a pediatric nurse of 45 years, said she wanted something to do that would allow her to work with children. "I like the fact that I can make a difference, but I know it’s going to be difficult working with abused and neglected children. "

"I am so proud of her," said daughter, Kathy Brown of Vienna, who brought her family to the swearing-in ceremony. "I didn’t realize the level of commitment it takes to be a volunteer, but my mom has what it takes to help these children."

Mann and Banks both stressed that CASA volunteers become their own family unit.

"I don’t want to scare you, but you will change," Mann said to the 16 volunteers at the Feb. 21 ceremony who were about to take an oath pledging their allegiance to the "best interest of the child."

"It’s going to be hard for you; be prepared," Mann said. "Your CASA family understands. All of these people are here for you," Mann said. "When the tears really start coming and the pain gets hard, you know this is not just work; it can be life and death."