By Brad Reynolds
Addressing a community’s shortcomings can be uncomfortable, especially when those shortcomings pertain to the safety of children. In Montana, the communities that make up Cascade County report the highest rate of child abuse and neglect of any county in the state. Here, CASA-CAN (Court Appointed Special Advocates-Children’s Advocate Network), a local nonprofit organization, speaks on behalf of vulnerable children in hopes of providing a better future—for the children and the county as a whole.
“What our advocates are doing now will help future generations and hopefully break the cycle of abuse,” says Lisa Goff, Executive Director of CASA-CAN. “By making a difference in children’s lives, we’re developing healthier communities down the line.”
Developed by Seattle Superior Court Judge David Soukup in 1977, CASA is a national association with a presence in each of the fifty states. Each CASA program is a local entity, run by a local board and staff. In 1988, Cascade County became the first in Montana to adopt the program, which relies on volunteers to advocate on behalf of each child.
“A court appointed attorney, paid for by county taxpayers, is going to advocate for the wants of the child, but what a child wants isn’t always in the child’s best interest,” explains Peggy Becker, who has been a CASA since 2001 and served 55 children. “Most children love their parents, and most parents love their children, but sometimes love is not enough.”
Montana law is geared toward a parent’s rights, and in fact, parental rights cannot be terminated in the state without a CASA involved. That is not to say that taking children from their parents is the goal of CASA-CAN, simply that CASA volunteers will fight for a child’s well-being whether that places them back with their parents or not.
“A child has to have a roof over their head, a ride to school, protections from the outside world,” says Peggy. “We want them to be safe and cared for in every way.”
“Being a CASA isn’t as scary and depressing as many people think,” adds Lisa. “Children are resilient, and making a difference in their lives is very rewarding.”
CASA-CAN currently has 70-80 volunteers, which sounds like a lot, but is only enough to advocate for roughly half of the children involved in abuse and neglect cases. Those interested in providing a voice for these children should fill out a CASA-CAN application and await a background check and interview. Those approved to become advocates are given thirty hours of initial training (broken into three hour sessions, twice a week).
“Someone once came up to me after training and said she was worried she’d fall asleep, but actually she really enjoyed it,” chuckles Lisa.
“It’s very interesting,” says Peggy. “CASA-CAN is geared toward individuals, so you can take as many cases as you have time for. By just spending some time with a young person in need, you can help them become a good adult some day.”
Generally, when a case is closed, the child’s CASA says goodbye and wishes them the best, but sometimes the child stays in contact.
“There was a little girl who every time she was in trouble, she’d call her CASA,” explains Lisa. “She told the CASA, ‘I know you’re the one person I can depend on to be there for me.’”
A CASA’s involvement in a child’s life—whether for the duration of their case or beyond it—has an enduring impact.
“Everybody should have someone in their life who cares for them,” says Peggy. “Everybody deserves that person.”
CASA-CAN is located at 325 2nd Avenue North in Great Falls. For more information, visit casacan.org or call (406) 454-6738.