The opinion column below was written by Mike Antonucci, a court appointed special advocate in Washoe County for children in foster care. Find the original post on the Reno Gazette Journal website.
A few good men can make an extraordinary difference. This is about the search for many such men.
The Washoe CASA Program is a volunteer-driven effort of Court Appointed Special Advocates dedicated to one-on-one advocacy for children in foster care. The circumstances of some of these cases, which originated with children suffering neglect or abuse, call powerfully for the presence and perspective of male volunteers. But the percentage of men among trained advocates is distressingly small.
The deterrents may start with a basic gender gap in awareness about the program. Even so, the men who do become CASA volunteers thrive as advocates for children who may have no other consistently supportive adult in their lives. And the sense of benefit is a two-way street: The kids tend to make much better transitions in and out of foster care, and their CASAs experience a remarkable sense of fulfillment in service to a child’s future.
Establishing that unique connection is the essence of each volunteer’s role in a complex and emotionally fragile process. The training from the program’s case managers provides the grounding for representing the child’s best interests at every court hearing. The course of an assignment — assessing and addressing a child’s evolving needs — can take many turns. Some cases beg and cry for a stable and trustworthy male figure who otherwise has been minimally existent in the child’s history.
One male volunteer describes arriving at a foster home for the first time and noticing the little boy inside at the window. The boy’s reaction to realizing his CASA was a man? “It’s a boy, it’s a boy,” he yelled excitedly to his foster mom.
Getting CASA volunteers in general is a major quest, but there are continual reminders of the need, such as Child Abuse Awareness Month in April. There are more than 900 children in foster care in Washoe County, and the overall number of sworn volunteers hovers around 100. That leaves a troubling gap, and the shortage of men — sometimes less than 20 percent of active volunteers — intensifies the challenges.
Volunteers come from all walks of life, fortified by their diversity of personal and career backgrounds. Their mission is advocacy, not mentorship or sponsorship. Their crucial shared qualification is also their shared value: commitment. We know this transcends male-female stereotypes because male CASAs tell us their participation has been among the most profound activities of their lives.
Motivated? We hope you are. The Washoe CASA Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that provides additional funding and support for the Second Judicial District Court CASA Program, has comprehensive information about volunteering on its website (www.washoecasafoundation.com). The foundation also hosts “Coffee with CASA” gatherings where you can get questions answered in person. We look forward to hearing from you.