CASA GAL of Hancock County employees, from left, Stephanie Stephan, Leah Cole, Erika Long and Amy Evearitt are shown outside the agency’s office on Front Street. The nonprofit agency is looking for volunteers to serve as guardians ad-litem for children in local courtrooms. (Photo by Brenna Griteman)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN

LIFE EDITOR

A prospective volunteer looking to change the course of a child’s life forever might look no further than CASA GAL of Hancock County, especially amid the ongoing opioid crisis.

The international, nonprofit agency has existed since 1996 to appoint guardians to represent children in courtrooms. This calendar year, the local agency’s caseload has skyrocketed.

“Our numbers have tripled since 2017, and we’re not even at the end of the year,” says executive director Leah Cole. The agency served 248 youth from January to October.

Cole cites parental drug abuse as the primary reason for the increase, with the welfare of children a dire consequence.

“It’s overwhelming our court system, it’s overwhelming us, it’s overwhelming children’s services,” she says of the epidemic.

Office manager Stephanie Stephan concurs that local cases of child abuse and neglect have reached epic proportions. For the past nine years, for example, Stephan has taken on one to two cases at a time. These days, she’s juggling 20-plus cases. Cole and the office’s other two employees are doing the same.

While volunteers have always been central to CASA’s mission, the current drug crisis makes their contribution all the more imperative.

Cole says CASA is typically blessed with anywhere from 20 to 58 volunteers, “depending on what we’re fortunate enough to have. We never have too many.”

Volunteers serve as guardians ad-litem within the court system, typically representing minors, though exceptions are made in the case of youth still in school or with certain disabilities. Guardians are appointed to children involved in cases of abuse, neglect or dependency, or in particularly contentious divorce or custody cases.

Cole explains volunteers are tasked with investigating the child’s case independently and gathering information from teachers, parents, doctors, police and more. The volunteer’s sole responsibility is deciding what final outcome should be made in the best interest in the child, be it reunification with the parent/parents, or permanent placement with an adoption agency or an outside family member. They then accompany the child on their day in court, championing the outcome they feel is best.

“Our expectation is, they know the child as well as or better than anyone in that courtroom when the day comes,” Cole says.

A typical volunteer is assigned to one to two cases at a time, and each case can last anywhere from six months to about two years. Other volunteers, however, take on five or more cases at once.

Every CASA advocate in Ohio must receive 40 hours of preservice training, including courtroom observation. Twelve hours of continued training are required annually.

“We ask a lot from our volunteers, just to be trained to do the job,” Cole says, adding that sometimes, volunteers complete their 40 hours of training only to realize the job asked of them is too emotional. In this case, the volunteer can still be utilized to advocate for CASA out in the community.

Cole recognizes it can be overwhelming to see a child black and blue from physical abuse or emotionally crushed by their parents’ bickering. But she assures them, “You’re going to have that one kid, you’re going to have that one case, where you just know the world is a whole lot better for that kid thanks to your efforts.”

CASA is a United Way of Hancock County partner agency and, in 2018, was awarded $123,600.

Marathon Petroleum Corp. has forged a unique partnership with CASA in which the company donates training space to the agency, hosts fundraisers and encourages its staff to serve as volunteer advocates. Cole says Marathon is donating space for law enforcement training related to gang violence this Thursday and Friday.

For more information about volunteer opportunities, contact CASA at 419-424-3262, fill out the online form at casahc.org or message the agency through Facebook.

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