CASA of Kent County receives 2011 Liberty Bell Award

May 7, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The Grand Rapids Bar Association has announced that the 2011 Liberty Bell award is going to CASA of Kent County for its work in recruiting and training volunteer advocates for abused or neglected children as they pass through the family court system.

According to the Bar Association, CASA of Kent County empowers everyday citizens to become appointed members of the Kent County court system, serving as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). The Liberty Bell Award is presented each year by the GRBA to a non-lawyer or nonprofit organization in recognition of outstanding contributions to the cause of justice or to advancing public awareness of the Constitution and legal system.

Sigrid Valk-Feeney, a volunteer and president of the board of CASA of Kent County, said she appreciates the Liberty Bell award and views it as an opportunity “to further our cause toward helping the children in our community.”

Valk-Feeney, whose “day job” is partner at Delta Equity Advisors LLC in Grand Rapids, said CASA of Kent County will have more than 120 CASA volunteers when the newest recruits complete training this month. The organization plans on advocating for 300 children during 2011, an increase of 23 percent over 2010.

The sad part, she said, is that there still are many more open cases that CASA can’t fill because there aren’t enough volunteers. “It’s heart-breaking; these kids need somebody and you can’t help them all,” she said.

According to the CASA Kent County website (www.casakentco.org), more than 800 Kent County children were eligible for CASA services in 2010. There are thousands of children across Michigan who have been removed from their homes by the courts because they are no longer safe living there.

It might be difficult to find unpaid community volunteers who are given as much responsibility as the CASA volunteers — who are not even reimbursed for driving expenses during their work for the courts. When a judge appoints a CASA to a family court case, that volunteer serves as “the eyes and ears for the court for that child, advocating for that child, because in a lot of situations, the children themselves don’t always get heard,” said Valk-Feeney.

The court-appointed special advocates do not serve as mentors to the children, said Valk-Feeney, nor may the CASA volunteer involve the child with their own family, but CASAs do establish a relationship with the child “and will typically be the only constant resource that this child will have as they go through the court process.”

“Unfortunately, the lawyers and caseworkers have so many kids that they can’t necessarily know what is the best thing for this child,” said Valk-Feeney.

CASA volunteers come from all walks of life and are carefully selected. They undergo five weeks of training and then are asked to commit to spending from two to four hours with their assigned child at least twice a month. “The majority of our CASAs meet with their kids weekly,” Valk-Feeney added.

The CASA’s job is to gather as much information as possible from the child, the child’s parent or parents, foster parents, teachers, and the caseworkers and lawyers involved. The CASA makes regular, detailed written reports to the judge, regarding everything he or she has learned about the child’s situation.

“They are there to make sure the child does not get lost in the system,” she said. In some cases, the CASA also can help the child’s parent or parents fully understand what they need to do to regain custody of their child.

Valk-Feeney said that once a child is put into foster care by the courts, it can take at least six to nine months before the parent is able to regain custody — and then only if everything required by the court stays on track and the parent can demonstrate the required stability to care for the child.

“CASA always seems to be able to cut through the smoke screens and red herrings … and spot issues impeding the progress of the case or the well-being of the children,” said Judge Nanaruth H. Carpenter of the family division of Kent County Circuit Court.

“We cannot adequately express our thanks for the time and energy these dedicated volunteers contribute to help the children and families in our county,” Carpenter said on the CASA Kent County website.

A CASA volunteer works with his or her assigned child until the child is out of the family court system, but an assignment can take years, said Valk-Feeney, adding that one of their cases now has gone on for eight years. That work can be stressful, as the CASA becomes privy to tragic situations involving innocent children. CASAs are advised to turn to other experienced CASAs for moral support, and also have supervisors to help them deal with a stress overload.

Valk-Feeney said CASA of Kent County is the largest such program in Michigan in terms of numbers of volunteers, even though the organization is not very well-known to the general public. She said she would like to see that change so that the nonprofit organization is better able to recruit volunteers and raise funds for training and administration.

So what do CASA volunteers get in return for their work?

“Pretty much the satisfaction of knowing that you helped at least one child to possibly lead a better life. The satisfaction is … just being able to see a child have a positive future,” she said.

Is her professional career at all like the work CASA does? “Not at all,” she said, smiling. “Nope. Not at all.”

Delta Equity Advisors LLC is a specialized consulting firm founded in 1999 to help companies in financial trouble achieve a sustainable turnaround. It has since expanded its services to include operational enhancement, strategic planning and transactional assistance.

Valk-Feeney wasn’t even aware of CASA when she decided several years ago to find a community organization where she could volunteer. After she found the organization and passed the interview, she was asked by CASA leaders to serve on the board, because the organization was then beginning the process of becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity and her management experience was seen as very helpful.

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