Douglas County CASA celebrates 30 years, wants to double its reach in the next 5
photo by: Lauren Fox
A local nonprofit celebrating its 30th anniversary has admittedly “ambitious” goals for the next five years: Its leaders want to help 200 children a year by doubling the budget.
Douglas County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or Douglas County CASA, as it is commonly called, is a nonprofit that trains volunteers to advocate for children who have experienced abuse and neglect who are under the protection of the court system. Douglas County CASA’s executive director, Erick Vaughn, and development assistant Sarah Hoadley met with the Journal-World last week to discuss the nonprofit’s 30th anniversary and its goals.
“It’s easy for a lot of us to take for granted a way of living here in our community and forget the range of experiences that go on under our noses,” Hoadley said.
Thirty years ago, CASA started with $1,000, a director and one volunteer supporting one child. Now, the organization has four full-time staff members, four part-time staff members and 88 active volunteers who serve 103 children. But the need is greater. There are 76 children on the waiting list.
“We’re in a position where we have to triage, essentially, and find out what’s the most dire situation, how we can intervene and make a difference for that particular kid,” Hoadley said.
Vaughn’s goal, which he called “ambitious,” is to double the number of children CASA serves by 2026. In order to do that, CASA would need to double its staff, which in turn would allow CASA to welcome more volunteers.
The organization asks for a commitment of at least one year from its volunteers, who undergo 30 hours of training before being sworn in as CASA volunteers. The volunteers are assigned to one child or sibling group.
Often, volunteers serve for longer than a year, Hoadley said, and some serve for decades. So even though a child’s case manager may change throughout the court process, CASA volunteers are a steady presence in the child’s life, Vaughn said. Volunteers turn in monthly reports about the child, paying special attention to the child’s physical and mental health, educational needs and more.
Because of their steady presence in the child’s life, CASA volunteers are often able to make substantive differences. One volunteer was able to convince the child he had been working with, who had just turned 18, into staying in the court system for one more week so that his case manager could help him get access to health care.
Another volunteer noticed the child was flunking choir class and told him to start singing. He ended up passing, and now choir is one of his favorite classes.
And in the summer of 2019, a volunteer advocate coordinator was approached by a child she had worked with years ago in a grocery store. He introduced her to his wife and children, said CASA changed his life, and then asked her to look out for his nephew, who he feared might be entering the child welfare system. The kid ended up entering the system, and a CASA volunteer was assigned to his case.
Hoadley called the young man “an advocate” who helped another child get matched with a CASA volunteer “after recognizing what a difference it made in his life.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of child in need of care (CINC) cases filed in Douglas County had steadily increased, according to data obtained by the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office. In 2010, for example, 92 CINC cases were filed. In 2019, 162 were.
But in 2020, only 70 cases were filed. Vaughn said this was likely because of the pandemic, since children were not being seen as often by mandated reporters such as teachers and coaches.
“It’s kind of drastic language to say they’ve been stuck at home with their abusers, but that is the reality — that they’ve been stuck at home with their abusers without anybody to see what’s going on,” Vaughn said. “So we expect those cases to go up as kids start going back to school face to face.”
Vaughn has been able to grow the nonprofit since he took charge in 2019. CASA hired a new full-time volunteer advocate coordinator, and is currently able to take on another 20-25 volunteers. Vaughn said the nonprofit’s current budget was $500,000 and that he would need to increase it to $1 million to serve about 200 kids a year.
“These kids unfortunately are in a situation through no fault of their own of needing help, and we want to be there for them, and right now we can’t be for every kid and we want to get there,” he said. “So we are really trying to push ourselves.”
A 21-year employee of the nonprofit said that when she joined the organization numerous employees shared one computer. Now, the nonprofit has more resources, adapts to changes in technology and uses social media to raise awareness of the organization’s mission and recruit volunteers.
“I’m very proud. I’ve seen a lot of small organizations in the time I’ve been with CASA come and go,” said Carolyn Johnson, the 21-year staff member. “I think part of that is luck, but I think part of it is we’ve been really fortunate in terms of staff. We’ve had a stable staff and enough resources to keep going.”
Johnson works part-time as a volunteer advocate coordinator. She’s responsible for supporting about 15 volunteers and helping them with any issues that may arise in their cases. She said the reason she’s stayed with the nonprofit for over two decades is her passion for helping others and the inspiration she receives from the volunteers.
“I was just on a daily basis inspired by the possibility of making things better, and I really truly believe that these volunteers are just amazing people,” she said. “I would say what keeps me going is my volunteers … It’s the relationships. My coworkers are family, and my volunteers are family too.”
CASA will be celebrating its 30th anniversary at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday in South Park. The event, which will include speakers and a volunteer of the year award presentation, will also be livestreamed on the Douglas County CASA Facebook page. Anyone interested in becoming a CASA volunteer or donating to CASA may do so on the nonprofit’s website, dccasa.org.