CANANDAIGUA — Three current and former employees of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes recently found themselves in front of Ontario County Family Court Judge Craig Doran in the courthouse’s North Courtroom.
At Doran’s request, each person raised his or her right hand and took an oath. When they lowered their hands, however, the three didn’t appear nervous. In fact, all four people — including Doran — were all grinning broadly.
“Congratulations, you’re official now. There’s no backing out now,” Doran told them with a smile.
Doran had just sworn in Osbaldo Arce, Deborah Cole and William Lamb as the inaugural volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Ontario County, which is administered by Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes. The three will advocate for abused, neglected and at-risk children who are going through Ontario County’s Family Court system.
CASA is a nonprofit volunteer organization that began in Seattle in 1977, said Lamb, program coordinator of CASA of Ontario County. At that time, a Seattle judge realized that he was receiving conflicting information from the different parties involved in a child-abuse case involving a 4-year-old girl.
The judge didn’t feel he had enough accurate, unbiased information to make a fair ruling, Lamb said, and the experience spurred him to develop a network of trained community volunteers who would gather information and speak in court in the best interests of abused, neglected and at-risk children. There is now a national CASA organization, as well as more than 900 smaller CASA organizations in 49 states, including New York. Information about the national program is available at www.nationalcasa.org, while information on the New York program may be found at www.casanys.org.
Until July 1, there were 23 CASA programs serving 33 counties in New York, but none of these programs served Yates, Ontario, Cayuga, Seneca or Wayne counties. On July 1, Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes received a grant from the national CASA agency, Lamb said. This money, combined with a venture grant from diocesan Catholic Charities, allowed Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes to launch CASA of Ontario County, said Cole, director of services for Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes.
In their new roles as CASA volunteers, Cole, Lamb and Arce, who is former director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes’ Hispanic Community and Family Services Program, will be appointed by Ontario County Family Court judges to work on specific cases. As officers of the court, they will investigate the case and interview everyone involved with a particular child’s life, including parents, teachers and caseworkers, Lamb said.
The volunteers also will ask the children and parents how they are progressing and about their plans for the future, help connect the families with any services they need, and advocate for the child at such events as school meetings and service-plan reviews.
“One of the big goals is to be that consistent person throughout a case. Let’s face it, coming to court for a 12-year-old is a little intimidating. Hopefully, they’ll feel they have a voice,” Lamb said.
Since consistency is such a crucial element of CASA, volunteers will be asked to make at least an 18-month commitment to the program, Lamb said. Volunteers also must be at least 21, and should have some experience working with children. Knowledge of the way the Family Court system works also is helpful, Lamb said.
Lamb hopes to recruit and train many more volunteers in the next few months, although he knows the number of referrals will always outstrip the number of CASA volunteers. Eventually, Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes hopes to expand the CASA program into the other Finger Lakes counties, he said.
Volunteers complete 30 hours of training before they are assigned to their first case, he added.
“We cover a lot of what Family Court is and how to work with families in crisis, … dealing with the stigma of foster care,” Lamb said. “How do we work with kids who may have an incarcerated parent? How do substance-abuse or mental-health issues affect parents and children?”
Although it is a big time commitment, Lamb thinks CASA volunteers will find it to be time well spent. Lamb has already worked with at-risk children and families through his work with Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes’ supervised-visitation and parenting-education programs and said he personally has found such work to be very rewarding.
“Just the work I’ve already done with this population is amazing,” he said. “Some of the real leaders of tomorrow are some of the kids I’ve met.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about CASA of Ontario County or to become a volunteer, e-mail William Lamb at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him at 315/789-2686, ext. 116, or toll free at 877/777-2686.