As the number of children in foster care continues to rise in Montana, Flathead County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program is opening a satellite branch in Lincoln County, with volunteer training to begin in January.
There are currently 14 CASA programs in Montana that provide legal support for abused and neglected children who have been removed from their home by the state. While the Lincoln County branch will start out as a satellite branch, program director Sean Carlin said the long-term goal is to make it an independent operation.
CASA is a national nonprofit organization with more than 900 programs across the country. Whenever a child is removed from a home, a judge appoints a guardian ad litem who advocates for “the best interests of the child.” The guardian regularly meets with the child and ensures that their voice is heard during court proceedings.
“(CASA) volunteers are really in the trenches with these kids,” Carlin said.
Prior to the establishment of a CASA program in Lincoln County, attorneys often served as the child’s counsel and guardian ad litem. Carlin said, however, that could be considered a conflict of interest because an attorney must advocate for the wishes of a client but not necessarily the child’s best interest.
The CASA volunteer speaks with the children, the birth parents, foster parents, schoolteachers, social workers and others to help give the judge in the case a more complete picture of the child’s situation.
The Flathead County CASA program currently serves 250 children annually. Carlin said many children find themselves in foster care because of Montana’s ongoing drug epidemic. In 2008, there were 1,500 children in foster care in Montana; today that number has skyrocketed 165 percent to nearly 4,000 children. Carlin estimates approximately 60 children in Lincoln County are currently in foster care.
In order to become a CASA volunteer, you must be 21 years of age and be able to pass a background check. Volunteers need to complete at least 50 hours of training and make a commitment to stick with a child through the duration of their case. Training for Lincoln County volunteers is expected to begin in January. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to call (406) 291-8912.