Dane County CASA is a Madison-based 501(c)(3) organization that provides community advocates to abused and neglected kids in Dane County. It’s an agency that works to give the most vulnerable children in our community a voice.
“I have a pretty strong philosophical belief that if we can get community members in Dane County to actually just have exposure to the types of situations that these kids and families are in, then we’ll bridge this big gap in our community,” says Mary Beth Collins, executive director of Dane County CASA. “The fact that we have this perfect mechanism of allowing people to do that through the court systems, I think that’s really special. Allowing community members to be involved in that process can benefit the kids in those individual cases and the community at large because they learn so much about what’s really happening.”
Dane County CASA, Inc. has been providing services to the Juvenile Court System since 1995 and was established as an independent, non-profit agency in January of 2005. Dane County CASA is funded, in part, through the Dane County Clerk of Courts office and the United Way of Dane County as well as through fundraising events and activities.
Collins joined Dane County CASA, Inc. as its executive director in September of 2009. “We are growing by shear will of our committed board [of directors] and really the need of so many kids that could benefit from having an advocate,” Collins says. “We’ve been really climbing that uphill climb to grow even in a down economy.”
The mission of Dane County CASA is to be an independent voice for abused and neglected children who are under the legal protection of the Dane County Court System. This is done through training, supporting, and supervising community-based volunteers who advocate for these children in the community and in the courts with the goal of establishing them in safe, permanent homes as soon as possible.
“Court Appointed Special Advocates are volunteers that are regular community members who pass background checks and interview processes and go through training,” Collins says. “The volunteers do participate in the court hearings and they do provide information to the court, but what they do is much more humanistic. They visit the kids wherever they are on a weekly basis and just get to know them and get to know their circumstances and how things are going for them. They correspond with everyone in the children’s lives and on their team [social workers, attorneys, therapists]. They do the behind-the-scenes advocacy to make sure that things are going well.”
Right now, Dane County CASA has 45 people active in the field serving about 100 kids with probably another 10-15 volunteers who are between cases or ready to take a case. CASA advocates for the safety, permanency, and well-being of the kids we serve. The CASA budget is pretty small — just over $200,000 — but they manage to get a lot done.
“It’s not Big Brothers Big Sisters…. You can’t take them away to mini golf. It’s all about observing them in their own context and being an advocate in every sense of the word,” Collins says.
Of late, Dane County CASA has been focused on a diversity initiative that they hope will lead to having more African American volunteers — especially men.
“It’s important for us to have a volunteer base that tracks the population we serve,” Collins says. “We serve 50/50 boys and girls although our volunteer base has been overwhelmingly female. This is true nationwide. And a little less than 50 percent of our kids are African American kids and our volunteer base right now is probably about 10 percent racial minority as a whole.”
That’s not far from Dane County’s overall population demographics, but Dane County CASA would still love to see those numbers minority volunteer numbers increase.
“Even if people can’t be direct volunteers, we make sure that their volunteer training is very culturally competent as well. We talk a lot about people leaving their assumptions at the door as a CASA volunteer not just for race and ethnicity but for all kinds of assumptions we might have about families and poverty,” Collins says. “I think, as a whole, that our network and our organization will do better and be more competent if we have representatives from all of Dane County’s communities involved.”
Nia Enemuoh-Trammell, an Administrative Law Judge at the State of Wisconsin and a current member of the board of directors for Dane County CASA, says that people who might find the prospect of becoming a CASA volunteer daunting should know that the staff is extremely helpful. Enemuoh-Trammell was a volunteer since 2004 until she became a board member.
“The CASA staff is a tremendous resource to volunteers,” Enemuoh-Trammell says. “I remember when I took on my first case ... I relied heavily on the staff and the executive director and her assistant. I wasn’t so sure about what my role was and how to deal with parents who don’t necessarily want you in their lives but you know that you’re there to protect the interests of the child. So, for anyone who is interested in volunteering but [may be] afraid of getting into such a huge responsibility, the staff does an excellent job in making sure that you know what to do and when to do it.
“People are worried about the time commitment and the level of involvement,” Enemuoh-Trammell continues. “To become a CASA volunteer there is a 30-hour training initially. There are requirements to keep up on a yearly basis and you do weekly visits with the children and you submit reports every month or two. People are initially taken aback by the level of commitment that might be required to be a CASA [volunteer], but once you get through the training, you are adequately equipped to do everything you need to do to go into the homes and work with the children and you actually find the work to be very rewarding.”
Collins says that an excellent entry point for potential volunteers or community members looking to learn more about what CASA is all about is this weekend’s “Stand Up for Kids 2012 to Benefit Dane County CASA” at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Madison. On Friday, July 13, the world-renowned Second City Improv All Stars will be performing an evening of improv comedy that is surely going to be hilarious. For people who might not know, Second City is the comedy troupe that launched the careers of dozens of Hollywood and T.V. stars including John Belushi, Dan Akyroyd, Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, Mike Myers, Tim Meadows, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, and more.
“It’s really fun because they are really the best. And improv is fun because it’s different every time,” says Collins, adding that Ho-Chunk Gaming is sponsoring the event. “It’s really cool because it is about the cost of this type of entertainment, anyway… even if you are just a person off the street coming to see the show.”
But CASA adds in all of the niceties of a charity event. “I feel like it is a really good intro event to CASA because you can go out for the night and pay a regular show cost and hear a little bit about CASA,” Collins says. “We have a silent auction which will be really nice. DJ Nick Nice will do the afterparty. We have an awesome Dessert Buffet. It will be a full evening of entertainment and fun.”
Collins, who before her position at Dane County CASA was an attorney in private practice, working with tax-exempt organization clients to address their legal and organizational needs and also the law clerk for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, is excited to help grow Dane County CASA.
“I’m really trying to focus on building and growing this organization to a place of permanence in our court system,” Collins says. ““We want to make sure that every case that we serve on that we are doing everything we can to help the child and to support the volunteer in a way that allows them to stay strong and fortified. I think that we believe in the CASA office that if we can do the good work on the cases that the rest will come.
“My goal is that more people understand who we are and what we do,” she adds. “And that’s a challenge because it’s not an elevator speech type of organization. It’s hard to explain quickly what we do. But once you hook people, they get it.”
Nia Enemuoh-Trammell hopes to see a day when all children in the Dane County child protective court system can be assigned a special advocate who will work for their safety, permanency, and well-being. It’s something that is very personal for her.
“I think back to the families that I have worked with and how I’ve impacted the lives of the children,” she says. “I think for me the hardest part is when your assignment ends and you’re not able to track and know what happens with the children but to the extent that you’re able to make a difference in their lives while you are there with them…. That’s obviously, hands down, my favorite part about being with CASA.”
Stand Up for Kids 2012 to Benefit Dane County CASA will be held at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Madison on Friday, July 13, 7 p.m.
Get your tickets now because they are going fast! For more information, visit www.danecountycasa.org.