The Empowering Work of CASA Volunteers
These super volunteers stand up for children across New Hampshire
illustration by gloria diianni
She was 10 years old and had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, she was removed by the State of New Hampshire from the only home she had known because of her mother’s opioid abuse and sent to live in a group home with strangers.
By the time her family situation improved enough to allow her to return home, the mother had a new man in her life and had already had two babies with him. The boyfriend didn’t want the girl in the home, so the mother, afraid of losing him, wouldn’t take her back.
The girl ended up stuck in “the system.”
“I worked on that case and it was really sad,” says W. Wright Danenbarger, a retired prominent attorney from Manchester, who was the girl’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteer. “The girl was punished all of the time in the group home because she was angry and rebellious, which was understandable because her mother rejected her, and it was her mother’s addiction to oxycontin that put her there in the first place. With nowhere to go and no one to want her, she had to stay in the group home.”
Danenbarger was perennially named on the “Best Lawyers in America” list and is a former president of the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. But you don’t have to know your way around a courtroom as well as he does, be as persuasive in front of a judge or hold a law degree to be an extremely effective and influential CASA advocate.
“Our caring and capable volunteer advocates come from all walks of life and have diverse educational backgrounds,” says Marcia “Marty” Sink, president and CEO of CASA New Hampshire. For 29 years she’s been at the helm of the organization, which is based in Manchester and operates five regional offices statewide.
The New Hampshire program is connected to the national CASA network of 949 programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Created in 1977 by a family court judge in Seattle, the way it works is to have citizen volunteers represent and speak up in the courtroom for the best interests of every abused and neglected victim in the foster care and child welfare system.
These are the kids who have no one else in their corner.
“The least able to help themselves and defend themselves are the ones who suffer the most,” says Caton Bredar, a national television personality and 30-year CASA volunteer advocate. “These kids can’t stand up and speak for themselves in a courtroom in front of a judge, and many are too little to even be able to speak. Think about if you didn’t have any family or anybody, and you were in a situation where the court was making decisions about your welfare and your future. That’s what life is for these kids.”
This volunteer opportunity gives you the chance to be the one constant in a kid’s life during the tempestuous time when all else seems like a variable. You are there when foster parents, social workers and judges can change at any given moment. You are their support system in an intimidating, frustrating and overburdened child welfare system.
“This work is a great fit for a senior,” says Sink. “We have an amazing group of senior advocates who have very full, rich lives and who have diverse personal and professional backgrounds. When they come to CASA, they are continuing to use a lot of the skills they have developed being a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, and they also have skills used in their careers. They are able to apply some of those to this work,” she adds. Indeed, she says, 72 percent of the New Hampshire advocates are 50-plus.
“People who have life experience and wisdom are better suited for this work. Sometimes people who are younger think they can change the world, so then (the advocacy) can become very discouraging for them,” says Bredar. “If you have a bit of life perspective, I think you are more realistic and can be more effective and helpful.”
The help is certainly needed. Sink says that on any given day, her organization is dealing with approximately 800 child abuse and neglect cases, and although there are currently more than 500 active advocates, at least 100 to 150 more are needed to meet the demand from the state.
The current opioid crisis continues to exacerbate the situation exponentially, putting more pressure on the program.
“We are working diligently at recruiting additional advocates and we are also working very hard to continue to build our capacity to be able to adequately screen, initially train and supervise the numbers of advocates that we do need,” says Sink, adding that volunteers typically invest between 10 to 12 hours per month, depending on the case.
“CASA is a well-run organization in New Hampshire and Marty Sink is very competent. I would definitely recommend this for any senior who wants to get involved,” says Danenbarger. “The training is intense and does take up a few long days, but it’s very good and worthwhile training. The work is not difficult for anyone, let alone someone 50-plus. As long as you can think logically, write, and stand up and speak in a courtroom, you can do this. There is a little bit of paperwork involved in that you have to write reports, but your supervisor can help.”
Regardless of where you live in the Granite State, you can get involved. You certainly can make an enormous difference in the life of a child victim, and you’ll see quite a difference in your life as well.
“Our advocates tell us is that they had no idea of the impact this work would have on them and how life-changing it is for them to do this work,” says Sink. “Their input is helping our judges make better-informed decisions. They say that now that they’ve done this, they can’t imagine not doing CASA. They tell us that this is the most meaningful experience they have ever had,” she adds. “This is powerful work. It is empowering work.”
For more information about CASA and its outcomes, the screening and training process, and on how to become involved as an advocate, volunteer, fundraiser or board member, visit casanh.org.