There is a very important program reaching abused and neglected children and some with serious mental health issues. As part of our Mental Health Initiative, WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says the Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA, assisted nearly 400-area children last year.
"He really doesn't have like any one in his life that is consistent besides us,” said Bridget McNally, CASA volunteer.
"It's just tough because we're the people he calls when he has something to talk about - he calls us every day,” noted Kelly Miskovski, CASA volunteer.
Kelly Miskovski and Bridget McNally have been serving as CASA volunteers for about three years. They've been working with the same teenager, a 17-year-old boy, who has been mostly in residential care. He suffers from a couple of different mental illnesses. The teen once had a foster family, but they never made a permanent commitment to care for him.
“But unfortunately that really never panned out, so we changed our goal to him living in independent living. It’s been awesome seeing him develop a relationship – positive relationships with people,” McNally explained.
“He’ll talk to me about school stuff. He talk about what’s going in the house with the other kids. He’ll just ask me how I’ve been doing, what I’m up to – he is interested in our lives too,” remarked Miskovski.
This is just one of the hundreds of cases CASA handles. Employees and volunteers are assisting children dealing with very difficult and tragic situations. The program is delivered by the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York.
Andrienne Linger is a CASA Volunteer Supervisor. She explains how they are able to make an important impact on the lives of their children and families.
“We have kids who are currently ‘out of home’ – in foster care – in residential care and hospitals. We have some kids that are place in 1017 care, which is with family members or friends. We have some kids that are ‘in-home’. We have a lot of kids that go through educational neglect and medial neglect and that generally cycles into just a downfall of not getting their appropriate needs and serves met,” Linger said.
CASA volunteers become a voice for children who lack family support. Unfortunately the numbers of kids in need of a court appointed advocate has increased due to the opiate epidemic. There are about 150 children-on waiting list.
"A lot of the kids have witnessed drug abuse, domestic violence - a lot of them have trauma themselves. They've been abused - there's a lot of mental health that comes down through the family - that has cycled through generations,” Linger responded.
“They all have baggage. They all have things that are difficult,” declared Julie Shaw, CASA volunteer.
Shaw is a special needs teacher and is now in her third year volunteering at CASA. Shaw has worked on four cases and believes volunteers are making a difference for these children
“I’ve had children be in a hospital type situation and graduate from there to a group home, from there to foster care, so they’re really trying to place these kids where they get the most support,” Shaw explained.
The length of each case can vary. Some close out within in eight months, but one has lasted for as long as 14-years. CASA's Linger tells WBFO News a 20-year-old woman will be aging out of the system in next April. She has no family support. CASA has been her only help for more than a decade.
“She has very few family members that are consistent. There has been a lot of trauma throughout the system within her life. We often thing about when you are in your 20’s and you get a flat tire – who do you call? You call your mom, you call your dad, you call your sister – this girl has nobody,” described Linger.
CASA is always in need of volunteers. You must be able to devote about 10-hours a month and attend a 30-hour, intense training program. You’ll learn how to interact with children scared by mental illness, physical abuse and neglect.
“I have a real difficulty with the parents who are not stepping up to the plate. And it’s often a parental battle that makes it difficult. They’re not focusing where I would hope their focus would be, which is on these dear children that need their support,” Shaw remarked.
“I think that most children want to tell their story, so its really being patient with them, and building a trusting relationship and I think those volunteers need to be able to meet children on their level, where they’re at,” Linger replied.