By: Rebecca Miller
There are many things available, or in use, in Williams County (WC), Ohio, which are what some might call “well kept secrets.” Over the years, it has been my pleasure to uncover a number of these and this is one of those times.
Recently while interviewing West Unity resident, Dee Custar, for the article about how their village is watching out for the housebound through Phone Calls, she mentioned that she is involved with something called CASA.
To me, casa is the Spanish word for house, so I asked her of what she was speaking…and it led to this article, to inform those who may not know of this terrific service in Williams County.
It is a very specific service, designed to give information directly to the Judge, who at this time is Judge Karen Gallagher.
It is also very specific in that it helps some of the most vulnerable in our world, the children.
CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocate” and is what the forty volunteers, who perform this service, are called.
The group itself is referred to as Northwest Ohio CASA and services four counties…Henry, Defiance, Williams and Paulding.
According to the website for NWO CASA, it began in 1991 as a court based program known as Henry County Casa and transitioned to an independent nonprofit in 1996. In 2017 they expanded to include offices in Defiance and Williams Counties, adding Paulding just last year, in 2020.
Court appointed special advocates are “local volunteers that serve as a voice for children that have experienced abuse or neglect,” and have found themselves in a situation that has come to the courts. Williams County had the service available to the courts for a number of years under a couple different titles, before joining up with NWO CASA in 2017.
According to Mrs. Custar, who is the WC CASA Coordinator, “There were three people in Williams County who took the first CASA training back in the late 1980’s when it was started by Judge Rigdon, while he was Juvenile Judge.”
“I was one of them. It went through a number of different phases and at one point was called VGAL, which stood for “Volunteer Guardian Ad Litum” (“a guardian that a court appoints to watch after someone during a case”).
About four or five years ago, Judge Steve Bird and Judge Karen Gallagher (then Magistrate) asked Custar if she would head up the Williams County branch of Northwest Ohio CASA if they rejoined with the other counties. She has been coordinator since then, as they regrouped to become Williams County CASA.
Some of the volunteers from VGAL stayed on and became part of the CASA team, and others were added, making up a team with which Dee Custar says she is honored to serve.
In the four county area there are five staff members and forty volunteers, with Dee and seventeen of those trained volunteers working in Williams County. “Williams County has terrific volunteers,” Custar shared in a phone interview.
“They are very strong in their ability to help the children who are assigned to them. We have excellent communication in our team and are able to maintain privacy for each child while still helping each other with encouragement and advice. When asked how we have such a great team I say that good people attract good people!
Williams County has a strong team of good, caring individuals! This attracts others to be volunteers. The judges agree that the volunteers are the program. They are a group of people who are so committed and invested in this.”
Presently there are four more volunteers signed up for a training in April, to be on the Williams County team.
Custar herself has been carrying one case at a time while supervising, but CASA is getting so busy that she is going to have to stop that aspect of her part time position, and be the back up for everyone else.
Each of the Volunteers can carry one or two cases at a time, so that they are able to focus on giving the best to each child.
They call themselves the “voice of the child” as they try to “get in their shoes so to speak.” Each volunteer is there to speak in court from the perspective of the child. They advocate for the child’s best interests and make sure they are protected.
“We never have enough volunteers,” Custar said, “and the number of cases continues to grow. Every child is assigned a Guardian ad litem, either an attorney or a CASA, but as of January 2021 the cases in Williams County will all be assigned to a CASA, if we have enough; all abuse, neglect, dependency cases.”
“The numbers are growing and even though we are getting more volunteers, I am going to be busy keeping them all assigned.”
Custer also explained that a CASA works with a given child until it is no longer needed. They are not the same as a Mentor, who meets a different need in the life of the child, but are specifically assigned by the judge to give voice to the child.
“Children find themselves in chaos, confusion and trauma and with everyone in their lives trying to help them deal with it, it can be confusing. The CASA is the coordinator of all those voices, who can bring some peace and comfort to the situation while they gather information and help determine what is best for the child. “
“They respond directly to the judge, taking authorization from the judge, which helps the parents to trust them. There is a tight relationship formed with the child and a bond of trust.”
“They open up to us and tell us a lot as we are always listening and watching. Every single case is different so you have to really listen with your heart And your head.”
The CASA works with the family and everyone involved in the case, as well as with the Job and Family Services investigator, teachers, counselors, and others. The volunteers receive the training to learn how to listen, look, and set aside bias and stereotypes during their six week training.”
“Preconceived notions and ideas are not helpful and are set aside so that the CASA may be the best representative possible for each child. “The goal is always reunification,” Custar said, “but during the time leading up to that, the child may not always be in their own home, so we work with them wherever they are.”
Custar loves the stories of the kids’ relationships with their CASA. She is encouraged by them and feels they show what an important job they are doing.
Not only are they a great help to the child, their family and the Judge and court system, NWO CASA is saving a lot of money for the county, as their service is voluntary. If the county had to pay an attorney for every child it would be quite costly.
At the present time, the Williams County branch of NWO CASA is “a strong group of women.” Custar said that they do need some men to be on the team and hope for that in the near future, especially for working with teenage boys.
For now the team is made up of women of all ages, some full time, some retired, some educated and others without an upper education but a great heart for kids, some hold professional occupations, but all come with a willingness to learn, and are balancing listening with heart and head with their love for children.
Custar says, concerning how she assigns a specific child to a specific CASA, that she honors the ladies’ abilities and “never guilts someone into taking a case.”
She tries to match them up with the age group with which they are comfortable. She places each child with someone who has the time and the emotional health at that moment to step in.
“They are volunteers, and they are the best group of people to work with and we enjoy each other,” Custar said about the team with which she works.
If interested in becoming a volunteer, contact CASA at 419-592-9455 or email to email@example.com. One can also go to nwocasa.com online and fill out an application as they are always welcoming more volunteers.
Rebecca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org