CASA volunteers find rewards in advocating for children

At last year’s CASA Christmas party, volunteer Leigh Hill was struck by how deeply her work as a legal advocate for children had impacted her own life, not just their’s.

She had fallen in love with the four siblings she and her cousin, Laura Schulze, first met about six months prior as CASA advocates and had been working with ever since.

“Their pictures were on our Christmas tree,” Schulze, 25, a third-grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary, said Saturday at the Capital Area CASA Association’s 15th annual picnic honoring volunteers.

The four siblings, all under 8 years old, live with a foster mother, but Schulze and Hill, 26, an LSU law student nearing graduation, spend many hours with the children — taking them to BREC parks and the Baton Rouge Zoo as well as restaurants and fun places where the siblings can have fun with one another.

They also appear in court on the children’s behalf, advocating for their best interests.

Schulze said she and Hill went into training thinking they could make a difference in the lives of a few children, but never thought they’d end up so emotionally invested in the four siblings.

Schulze and Hill were among several dozen of Capital Area CASA’s estimated 80 volunteers who spent Saturday playing, eating and enjoying the sunshine with their CASA kids at BREC’s Anna T. Jordan Park in Scotlandville.

Jennifer Mayer, recruitment coordinator for CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, said volunteers undergo rigorous training before they are paired up with an abused or neglected child.

Mayer said the pairings are done at the request of the two East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court judges, with the CASA volunteers speaking for the best interests of the children in court and helping to work toward getting the child or children placed in a permanent family.

To help the courts make decisions, the volunteers spend time getting to know the children, the foster family, the biological family, teachers, doctors, social workers and any other people who interact with the child, Mayer said.

CASA was started by King County Superior Court Judge David Soukup in 1977 after he realized there was no one in court speaking for the needs of children. Now there are more than 900 CASA groups with more than 70,000 volunteers across the country

The annual picnic used to be held in the backyard of the office of one of the board members before it outgrew the space. It is an event held not only to honor the work the volunteers do for the children, but to provide a day when the children can have a fun outing with their advocates.

At the picnic, children frolicked on the playground, watched in wonder as magicians contorted balloons into animals, played carnival-type games and put on silly hats to take pictures with siblings and advocates.

There was also a table set up where volunteers helped the children create colorful arts and crafts for their advocates.

Audra Ray, a foster mother, said she has “a great relationship” with CASA and the volunteer who advocates for Ray’s foster son. She said the volunteer visits her foster son regularly to check on him and play with him but is also there to stand in his corner and speak for him in court.

“They bring a voice in court for these abused and neglected kids,” David Faulk, CASA’s board chairman said of the volunteers. “They provide support for these children who otherwise have fallen through the cracks.”

The board governs CASA and oversees fundraising to help the organization meet its annual budget of about $750,000.

“Anything where you can affect the life of a child is something special,” Faulk said.

That’s a sentiment both Hill and Schulze share.

The cousins have both invested a lot of time in the siblings, but both say knowing they are helping the children makes it worth it.

“We both make it a priority,” Hill said.