It’s a disturbing reality that too many children in North Central Massachusetts are in family situations where they cannot thrive. We are constantly reminded of this through tragic news stories. We may know of children in these situations, or may have even witnessed it in our own families. In severe cases, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) will remove children from their home in what the courts refer to as a care and protection case, typically leaving the child in transitional housing or foster care. This is a national crisis, but our area has been especially hard hit. According to data from the Child Welfare League of America, the percentage of child victims referred to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families for investigation of child abuse or neglect has increased by 53.4 percent since 2011. Many groups and officials have hypothesized that this increase is connected to the opioid abuse crisis that has been well documented in Massachusetts and the New England region.
The issue has been compounded by a backlog in the juvenile courts, and the burden placed on DCF social workers who as a rule manage multiple different cases at once. Still fresh in our minds is the death of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg who died while in foster care, and whose body was later found in Sterling off of I-190. Juvenile court judges across the state attempt to make all possible interventions to ensure child welfare and well-being while in state custody, but it isn’t always enough. In some cases, the role of the Court Appointed Special Advocate is an important part of the goal of keeping children and youth safe.
Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA or “guardian ad litem” (GAL), are specially trained volunteers that are appointed by a juvenile court jurisdiction to a particular child or group of siblings in state custody. The program originated in 1977 in Seattle, Washington, and has since become a national network of programs serving local jurisdictions. Celebrities such as Dr. Phil (McGraw) and Oprah Winfrey have brought exposure to the program and focused attention on all that it can offer to children and youth in need, many of whom have endured significant trauma and instability throughout their lives.
The Worcester County Juvenile Court is served by the CASA Project of Worcester County, founded in Central Massachusetts in 1981 and committed to the children going through the juvenile courts ever since. In 2013, 180 CASA Project advocates served over 560 children in the Worcester County Juvenile Court, spread out between its five jurisdictions: Leominster, Fitchburg, Worcester, Milford, and Dudley. The organization strives to match volunteers with children based on their interests, background, and location to best facilitate the advocacy process. In general, CASA volunteers handle one case at a time, and each case typically lasts for a year or longer.
Jennifer Macduff of Princeton is a recently-trained CASA volunteer. She was sworn in earlier this year and was immediately assigned to a case. “I’ve known about CASA for a long time, but never felt that I had enough time to fully commit,” she says. When the CASA organization made a presentation at her workplace, Macduff decided that the time to act had come. “I’m so glad I made that decision,” she says. “Seeing my first case go to court and seeing the parents reunited with their child was a great feeling. They had worked hard to comply with their action plan [from DCF] and it was clear this was a family that needed to be together.”
Macduff encourages anyone considering becoming a CASA volunteer to simply do it. “There’s no better time than the present to make a difference,” she says, “and as a CASA volunteer you will get to make that difference in the lives of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children,” adding that the organization provides abundant support and resources to help volunteers and the children they work with. Advocate supervisors, who are paid, full time employees of The CASA Project, oversee volunteers and are there to provide assistance or to answer questions throughout the duration of their case. “The advocate supervisors care deeply about what they do and want volunteers to be successful in advocating for children.”
CASA is always looking for volunteers to participate in their training programs to become eligible to work a case. Training classes are held in Worcester and offer flexible day and evening sessions, intended to work around volunteers’ schedules. Volunteers undergo 16 hours of training over the course of four sessions. People from all walks of life who have child welfare at heart are encouraged to learn more and apply. No specific background, or prior training or education is required. The next training session will take place from October 15 to 25. For more information about CASA, volunteer requirements and responsibilities, and training, visit casaworcestercounty.org, or call 508- 757-9877.