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Kids get 'guardian angels'

Utah CASA program furnishes advocates for those in need

Children break things all the time: toys, antique vases, bones, teeth. The list could go on and on. In the cases that require medical attention, a concerned parent usually whisks the child away to a doctor's office.

But what if the broken front tooth is caused by a parent or guardian who is anything but loving? And what if the state agency that removes the child from the abuse can only afford an embarrassing metal cap?

Enter a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA. An adult, like Dennis, a 55-year-old businessman, appointed specifically to lobby for a child's every need, no matter how small.

Dennis was successful in getting a boy a ceramic cap for his front tooth, thereby saving the young boy from an embarrassing situation with his peers.

"It kind of puts a stigma on them. These kids have it hard enough, we want to make things as easy as possible," Dennis said. (The CASA program discourages the public use of last names because of the strict confidentiality of both its volunteers and their charges.)

Last year 4,100 abused, neglected or

abandoned children were unwittingly thrust into the juvenile court system. That's a staggering 25 percent statewide increase over 1999, according to statistics compiled by the Utah Judicial Council. With only a handful of juvenile court judges, court-appointed child attorneys and Department of Child and Family Services caseworkers, who handle upward of 50 cases at a time, there is little time to focus on the children.

There are about 60 CASA volunteers for Salt Lake's 3rd District Court, where last year more than 1,200 children wound their way through the maze of the criminal justice system. Nationally, the program boasts 42,000 volunteers in 47 states.

"A lot of these children are in the court system for more than a year. The CASA volunteer ends up being the one consistent person on the case," 3rd District CASA coordinator Christine Ellingson said. "(The volunteer) becomes a trusted person to them, becomes their friend."

CASAs visit with the key players in a child's life — from neighbors to parents, teachers to peers — to determine what is in the best interests of the child. For example, they make recommendations to the judge whether children should be removed permanently from their homes and available for adoption, or if therapy is an option for the child's parents.

In one instance, Mary, a 51-year-old mother of two grown children, recommended a young boy in her charge be placed with an aunt and uncle outside Utah. She is happy with the outcome of the case, which she spent two years investigating, and watching it work its way through the system.

"He was just so grateful because his future was so bleak, and I just know in my heart that he would not have had an opportunity to succeed in life if he stayed here," Mary said. "I took him to the airport, and he was just starting a brand-new life."

Mary, who has been a CASA for more than two years, said it's important for volunteers to forge a bond with the children and prove to the kids that their future is their "complete and total focus."

"These are children who are severely hung up in the system. Everyone involved has the best of intentions, but for some reason these kids just fall through the cracks," Mary said. "The whole system just swirls around them, and we may be the only adult person in their life. That is the one single thing that they can count on."

Diane, a single mother of two children, agrees. She admits she didn't fully realize what she was getting herself into when she first joined the program four years ago, although she admits every hour (and there have been many) has been worth it.

"It's far more work than I thought it would be, but it's far more rewarding than I anticipated it would be as well," Diane said. "It's always worth it when you see a kid who's happy to see you."

Volunteers are expected to log 10 to 15 hours a month per case, Ellingson said, as well as complete 32 hours of training before they take their first case. Training sessions are also peppered throughout their time in the program.

However, the volunteers admit they often spill over the 15-hour mark, which many say doesn't factor in just spending time with the children.

In their combined almost 10 years with CASA, Dennis, Mary and Diane have been able "to just be kids again," Dennis said. They have gone to Jazz games, gone in-line skating, bowled, read, helped with homework, picnicked, hiked, visited the zoo and children's museum, and countless other activities — all on their own tab.

"Sometimes I have to watch myself and make sure I spend enough time gathering facts," Dennis said. "I have a better time just going to the ballgame with them."

But it's also a lot of hard work, the volunteers say, both physically and emotionally.

"I don't think everybody could do this, a lot of people don't like to see that side of life, but that doesn't mean it's not there," Diane said. "I just know that there are too many kids in this state that are lost; they just languish in the system and are lost. They need us."

To qualify for the CASA program, volunteers must be at least 21 years old, commit to one year of service, expect to log 10-15 hours per month, authorize a background check and be fingerprinted and complete the application process.

To volunteer or for more information, call Christine Ellingson at 538-3898.