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2011-02-10

HC CASA seeks Bandera County volunteers to speak for children

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Diane Oehler, executive director of Hill Country CASA, issued a call for more Bandera County volunteers for her organization when she spoke to the Bandera Fine Arts Club Tuesday, Feb. 1. For many reasons, the child protective system in Texas is broken, said Oehler, and "sometimes CASA makes such a difference, it takes my breath away."
Hill Country CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, began in 1989. It is one of the oldest of 70 CASA organizations in the state. "All of them are working hard," said Oehler, at keeping at risk children from "falling through the cracks."
The director of the nonprofit organization currently supervises 97 volunteers who work as officers of the district court system covering Bandera, Gillespie, Kendall and Kerr counties. "The last two years, we have served 370-400 children," said Oehler. Kerr County has the highest percentage of child protective cases, but Bandera County, unfortunately, comes in second of the four counties, with about 24 percent of the caseload.
While serving as the judge's representative, a CASA volunteer has a wide-range of activities and responsibilities. The volunteer has the same responsibility as a teacher or health care provider to report suspected cases of child abuse. The volunteer becomes familiar with the background of the child's case and the child's current situation.
The CASA will visit the child in foster care, or wherever the child has been placed, to make sure they are doing well and that their needs are being met. Sometimes the CASA participates in mediations to resolve a family situation for the benefit of the child. While the majority of child protective cases are civil cases, occasionally the case will be elevated to a criminal case and the CASA may be called upon to testify in court.
"All of the CASA's case work is done by court order," said Oehler. CASA volunteers receive training about Texas laws, the court system, the Child Protective Services system and other areas of practical concern. All cases are supervised by the director and her staff.
"All of this helps the CASA to make their recommendation to the court as to what is best for the child," Oehler said.
Anyone interested in becoming a Hill Country CASA volunteer can contact Oehler or a member of her staff at 309 Earl Garrett Street, Kerrville 78028-4529, or by calling 830-896-2272 or emailing hccasa@ktc.com. Prospective volunteers are given a pre-application interview, followed by a background check. If cleared, the volunteer undergoes a series of training sessions. Once all of these steps are completed, the volunteer is sworn in as an officer of the district court.
"Our cases in Bandera County involve a lot of older children, babies, drug and alcohol related issues and kids having kids," said Oehler. For the older children, the CASA "models mature adult behavior for children who may have never experienced that kind of pattern," she added.
The CASA program began 35 years ago when a family court judge in Seattle decided he no longer wanted to make decisions based solely on CPS reports. When a child is removed from the family, the child becomes a ward of the court. Thanks to the existence of CASA, a child now has three voices - his attorney, the CPS case worker and the CASA, who speaks for the child's best interests on behalf of the judge.
Oehler has been with Hill Country CASA for 16 years. "The first few years, we had trouble getting a foothold in Bandera County, but former Sheriff James MacMillan served on our board and really helped," she said. "Today we have the support of County Judge Richard Evans and the Commissioners Court, who help fund our program. Also county law enforcement is very pro-active with child abuse cases."
Hill Country CASA's 2010 program evaluation was given a 99 percent positive rating from the volunteers, judiciary and attorneys. And, it has a 95 percent retention record on its volunteers. "I think it's because once they complete that first case, they're hooked," Oehler said. "CASA is one organization where volunteerism rises to a high level of professionalism."
Volunteers can take as many cases as they feel comfortable with. Casework can be scheduled around vacations, or even extended absences from Texas, so Snowbirds are welcome. The volunteers' education levels range from high school graduates to post-graduate degree holders.
Poverty and drug use have led to an increase in Hill Country CASA's caseload over the last few years. "There are just more and more very young families, kids having kids. They have no jobs, no safety net and no support system," said Oehler.
According to Oehler, Texas ranks 49th in the nation in providing mental health and child protective services. "We need the help of our volunteers to make up the difference," she said, adding, if you can't volunteer, "send someone to us."

Pictured: Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards

Executive Director Diane Oehler of Hill Country CASA spoke to the Bandera Fine Arts Club about the need for volunteers.