Portage County CASA program begins helping children

David E. Dix

If you’re looking for a great way to volunteer and help Portage County Juvenile Court make better decisions about the future of our county’s youth, here’s your chance.

Become a volunteer with the Portage County CASA program.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, a program that Portage County Juvenile Court Judge Patricia J. Smith started with the help of State Representative Gail Pavliga, who helped the judge to obtain funding.

Children who are removed from their homes, through no fault of their own, due to suspected addiction, abuse or neglect, need an advocate. CASA trains volunteers to investigate the circumstances that led to the removal of the child from his home. Under the authority of the Youth Court, the CASA volunteer provides insight into what is in the best interests of the child.

Prior to their appointment, each CASA volunteer receives 30 hours of training and ongoing support. The training sessions are scheduled taking into account the timetable of the volunteers. Sessions can be done online or in person. The next online training session begins on October 5.

Executive Director Ann Walden assigns a CASA volunteer to each child. The CASA volunteer then meets the child, learns about the child’s life and investigates their needs. A report is then filed in Portage County Juvenile Court. The CASA volunteer is the eyes and ears of the court and provides valuable information enabling the judge and magistrates to make informed decisions.

Walden holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Bowling Green. She has spent her career working with children and families in residential treatment, child welfare and juvenile court. She resides in Ravenna and has resided in Portage County for six years.

Pavliga helped Smith secure funding from Ohio CASA for the first two years. Portage County CASA will continue to seek grants for this much needed program. Portage County Commissioners fully supported CASA and provided rent-free office space in the Riddle Block building.

The first class of volunteers was sworn in on March 11 and the program currently has 29 volunteers.

Smith’s goal is to have a CASA for every child in need. With the current workload, Portage County would need 300 volunteers.

CASA was established in 1977 and has grown nationwide. Surrounding counties, including Summit, Cuyahoga, Medina, Geauga, and Mahoning counties, have well-established CASA programs to assist their juvenile courts.

“What we’re doing has already proven itself in neighboring counties,” Smith said.

Statistics indicate that a child with a CASA volunteer is half as likely to return to foster care, less likely to spend time in long-term foster care, more likely to have a better educational experience, more likely to receive needed professional services and more likely to be adopted.

Prior to the CASA program, lawyers provided guardian ad litem services to children. Both Smith and Walden believe that the CASA program frees up attorneys to provide specialized child protection legal services to children and families.

Volunteer efforts and donations helped Walden set up his offices with Portage County Employment and Family Services donating furniture. A part-time volunteer coordinator, Erin Grohe, was hired for the growing program.

If you are interested in volunteering or learning more about the program, visit portagecountycasa.org or visit on Facebook at @CASAofPortageCounty.

David E. Dix is ​​a retired editor of the Record-Courier.

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