The advocate

Alicia Lenahan, President, Piedmont CASA. Alicia has been the President at Piedmont CASA for the past year and a half. She also served six years as the Executive Director for the CASA project in Worchester, MA.

Alicia Lenahan, President, Piedmont CASA. Alicia has been the President at Piedmont CASA for the past year and a half. She also served six years as the Executive Director for the CASA project in Worchester, MA.

After hearing that November is National Adoption Month I was intrigued by the organization that crafted the PSA I heard on the radio a couple weeks ago. Their mission sounded important so I wanted to know more. 

I got a chance to sit down with Alicia Lenahan, President of Piedmont CASA, this afternoon to learn exactly what Piedmont CASA does. The service they provide is invaluable and really makes a difference in the life of a child going through the court system that has been taken away from his or her parents because of abuse or neglect. 

The Goal

Ultimately, says Alicia, "our goal at the outset is to return these children to their parents."

Piedmont CASA is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It is a member in good standing of the National CASA Association. A CASA volunteer is essentially the eyes and ears for the judge and the voice of the child. Typically, when CASA gets involved, a child has already been placed under foster care by the Department of Social Services (DSS). A judge sends a referral to the local CASA organization about a particular case where CASA's services will help. 

In Charlottesville, Albemarle and several of the surrounding counties, Piedmont CASA (PCASA) is the organization where referrals for child neglect and abuse cases go. One of the five supervisors at PCASA will review the case and appoint a volunteer to the case, if a volunteer is available.

Life changing recommendation

The volunteer is then the advocate for the child. Volunteers see their assigned kids at least once a month, but often more than that. They observe them in their foster home and ensure that their needs are being met. They ensure that kids are healthy and well taken care of in these homes. They make sure the kids are getting the services they need. 

Ideally, volunteers stay on a case for the life of the case. The volunteer's objective is to make a recommendation to the judge about whether or not the child should be returned to his or her parents. If the volunteer finds that no progress is being made and the child's safety is in jeopardy, the recommendation is made that other permanent housing should be secured. 

Safety is the biggest factor in deciding the outcome of these recommendations. 

"Parents are flawed," Alicia states, "most start the parenting journey with the best possible intentions, but face many challenges that make them unable or unwilling to keep their kids safe." 

Family is number one

When a parent's rights must be terminated, DSS always tries to find someone else in the family to take the kids. Even if children are placed in a foster home, "the search continues for family," Alicia says. 

In instances of older children it can be more difficult to find adoptive homes if no family is available. The trauma inflicted on the child "takes a toll," and sometimes the outcome is challenging behaviors or poor school performance, which "stack against the child," reflects Alicia. 

Having a CASA volunteer is extremely beneficial for these children, research shows. According to Lenahan, and based on research from the National CASA Association and other renowned research organizations, these kids receive more services while they are in foster care, have fewer placements, and tend to get out of the foster system more quickly than children that don't have CASA volunteers.

Stability in an ocean of impermanence

Perhaps the most important aspect to a volunteer's presence in the child's life is the stability the volunteer provides. 

"A small army of people travel through these kids’ lives, but they come and they go. Some have no impact, some have a negative impact, some have a positive impact, but then they leave, and that’s a loss for the child," states Alicia. The CASA volunteer is likely the only one that is there at the beginning and at the end. 

One of Piedmont CASA's volunteer's was the first to receive the Ruth Stone Child Advocacy Award. She has been working on the same case for twelve years. Alicia comments on the volunteer's commitment to this case. "Is it going to be a happy ending to this story? It’s going to be a reach to see that, but that young woman knows that no matter what, [her volunteer] is a consistent presence."

Help give the hope

I think we all seek a little bit of permanence in life while in the face of constant change. I wholeheartedly admire what these volunteers do for the children that have been abused in this community. They need a voice, and these volunteers are it. It's difficult to grow up in a home where you don't feel wanted, regardless of whether that is expressed by your parents through physical abuse or neglect. A person that is consistently in a child's life, and is working for that child's rights, is always a positive presence. 

If there is no volunteer available when a referral is sent from a judge, the child is placed on a wait list. Piedmont CASA, as well as the more than 900 other CASA organizations spread across the U.S., always need more volunteers. Even if you can't make the commitment to be an advocate for a child as a volunteer you can still contribute to this cause. You can share this story with others, which could inspire them to take on this challenging but essential task, or donate to CASA.

Even getting involved in other organizations that act as a positive influence in a child's life makes a difference. Kids like this need hope to help them get through adolescence and poised to be a successful adult. A positive influence can give them that hope and a chance at a meaningful future.