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Average people help abused and neglected kids

Peggy Ting was looking for a challenging volunteer opportunity.

She didn’t know volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, would transform not only her free time, but her career path.

CASAs talk to children who’ve been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, gather information about their lives and advocate for their best interests in court.

“I’ve always been passionate about working with kids, but my job was not related to kids at all,” said Ting, who worked in human resources.

The Medford resident left her job and is now a full-time student working on a Master’s degree in social work. She continues to volunteer as a CASA while also serving as an intern with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Jackson County.

“It’s actually been more rewarding than I expected,” Ting said. “I went in wanting a volunteer experience and my career changed.”

Ting is part of a cadre of 224 CASAs who helped 724 local children last year.

CASA of Jackson County is gaining ground on the number of volunteers it has and the kids it helps. But 235 children are currently waiting for a CASA, according to Wenonoa Spivak, deputy director of the nonprofit organization.

The youngsters range in age from babies up to 21-year-olds. Most are younger than 12.

Intensive training for the next batch of new CASA volunteers kicks off on Feb. 4.

But anyone can drop in for short information sessions that take place from noon to 1 p.m. every Thursday at CASA of Jackson County, 409 N. Front St., Medford.

Ting, Eric Stahlman of Ashland and Lilia Caballero of Medford are just a few CASAs who are spreading the word about the need for more volunteers.

“I tell all my friends about it,” said Stahlman, a school administrator and father. “Being a CASA makes me much more hopeful. There’s a chance we could make the world a better place. This is a way to actually do it — versus just hoping. It has an impact and you see it.”

Stahlman said he identifies with the Grinch. In the animated Christmas special, the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes that day” when he decided to return the presents he stole from the residents of Whoville.

Until he became a CASA, Stahlman said he didn’t realize his heart needed to grow. He now has more compassion and understanding for kids and parents struggling in the community.

Caballero works full-time as a cultural outreach liaison for the Medford Police Department and also serves on the Medford School Board. Born in Mexico, she speaks both Spanish and English.

“The idea of becoming a CASA was always in the back of my mind because of the need,” she said.

But it wasn’t until a CASA volunteer started attending the monthly meetings of the local Latinx Interagency Network Committee that Caballero decided to take the plunge. She learned CASA of Jackson County is trying to recruit a broad cross-section of volunteers to better reflect the community.

Caballero makes regular pitches at the Latino group’s meetings for more people to become CASAs. At least two so far have followed her lead.

“At meetings I say, ‘I know I sound like a broken record. But think of how lucky we are to live in this beautiful community. It’s time for us to give back. We all can volunteer,’” she said.

Because she works full-time and serves on the school board, Caballero has teamed up with fellow CASA Laura Wilson to share the workload for one child’s case. Wilson is a CASA for several other kids.

CASA of Jackson County allows married couples and pairs of friends to be co-CASAs for a child.

Learning to listen

Caballero, Ting and Stahlman said the most challenging hurdle to becoming a CASA is the initial 30 hours of training all new volunteers receive. But putting in the time prepares CASAs for the task ahead.

For this winter’s training period, eight sessions are spread out from Feb. 4-21, with most sessions lasting three hours.

“Immersion works well for lots of people, and that’s what it is — especially if you’re not familiar with social work, which I’m not. This is new to me,” said Stahlman, who started as a CASA in September 2019.

Ting said volunteers don’t have to remember every single thing they learn in training. In fact, asking questions and knowing when to get help make people better CASAs. Staff members and other volunteers are there to offer guidance.

After training, the time commitment drops off. It can vary from a few hours per month for a child in a stable living situation to 10 hours or more.

Being a good listener is an important attribute for CASAs.

“You’re interviewing kids in a very gentle way,” Stahlman said. “You’re talking and playing and drawing. You’re hanging out with them to find out how they’re doing, then advocating for them.”

Volunteers talk with the biological family, foster parents, teachers, doctors, social workers and others who can shed light on a child’s needs and situation.

Ting said CASAs learn to put their own biases and preconceived notions aside, especially when dealing with parents who’ve abused and neglected their kids. CASAs are trained to look for parents’ strengths, not just notice their faults. Many struggle with addiction, mental illness and criminal records.

Ting said she’s seen many parents suffering from addiction who still are loving toward their kids.

“In spite of challenges, they still manage to navigate the system. They go to addiction treatment and take parenting classes,” Ting said. “To have your child taken away and a horde of strangers asking different things of you is not easy. A lot of these parents do it because they love their kids.”

Most kids served by CASA are eventually reunited with their parents, while others are adopted or find legal guardians.

Children with a CASA spend an average of 10 fewer months in foster care compared to kids without an advocate. They are more likely to be placed in a safe, nurturing and permanent home, according to CASA of Jackson County.

Overcoming fears

Some people who consider volunteering hesitate because they fear something could go terribly wrong for a child. What if they miss something, or make a placement recommendation and a child is harmed?

Ting said CASAs are trained to thoroughly research a child’s situation — but also to realize no one can know or predict everything.

“That’s something we talk a lot about in training. It’s about using the information we have to make the best recommendation we can. Our information will never be perfect,” she said.

Stahlman said the system of checks and balances that includes child welfare workers, attorneys and judges means all the weight of a case is not on a CASA’s shoulders.

Another intimidating thought for incoming CASAs is the idea of presenting their findings about a child’s situation to a judge in a courtroom.

“I never thought I could speak in a court setting. It’s daunting for sure,” Ting said. “It can be intimidating if you don’t have experience with a legal setting or public speaking. But when it comes to the CASA’s role, there’s so much behind-the-scenes work. By the time you’re at a hearing, you’ve done your homework.”

She said judges are always respectful and encouraging toward CASAs.

“When a judge asks you to speak, you know a lot about the case. That prepares you to speak about something you’re familiar with. Judges really, really do care about what CASAs have to say,” Ting said.

Stahlman said he has been impressed by the professionalism and teamwork of those in the system, from lawyers and judges to child welfare workers to the CASA organization.

As for how the kids themselves react to getting a CASA, Ting said that varies. Some instantly open up to their CASAs, while others — especially teens from troubled homes who’ve been through multiple foster placements — are justifiably wary of adults. Sometimes a CASA becomes the most consistent adult in a child’s life.

“I’ve definitely had a range of reactions, but I’ve never had a kid who didn’t eventually warm up,” Ting said.

Stahlman said being a CASA has made his life richer and more rewarding.

“Before I became a CASA, I was given advice that if you need a change in direction in your life, finding something to volunteer for can shift it,” he said. “I needed a little something different to change in my world and make it better.”

Learning how to help the most vulnerable kids in society has been intriguing, exciting and fulfilling. The biggest surprise has been the level of caring CASA volunteers and staff members bring to the task, Stahlman said.

“I’m involving myself in a caring community that I didn’t even know was there. I’m involved with people who are making the world a better place. It’s been a great experience,” he said.

For more information about becoming a CASA, call 541-734-2272 or visit jacksoncountycasa.org.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Jackson County volunteers Lilia Caballero , Peggy Ting and Eric Stahlman inside one of the courtrooms at the Juvenile Services Building in downtown Medford.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune