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Local News

Living in Lake County: Children advocates ensure well-being in court system

Odie Pahl
Odie Pahl

A number of years ago I was volunteering for the Zacharias Center in Gurnee, which assists victims of sexual abuse. After being thoroughly trained, I signed-up for the help line, was on call for emergency visits to local hospitals for victims’ treatment. I learned how to advocate in court when perpetrators were brought for trial. The experience was very interesting, a bit depressing, and thoroughly fulfilling by helping those people during their darkest hours.

However, I have a special penchant for children. I wanted to be of service for the ones who are really hurting. I heard about CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and called to see what it was all about. After an interview, almost 40 hours of training, and being assigned to a case manager, I was ready to receive my first assignment. The children are victims of neglect, abandonment and abuse. My cases were no different. Each child starts the process through the court system and CASA volunteers do, as well. Up until an illness two years ago circumvented my service, I was fortunate to work on several cases.

In 2010, about the time I was sworn in, there were 70,900 advocates nationally and they had helped over 240,000 children through the court system. That same year, there were more than 700,000 children who were victims of abuse and neglect. CASAs become the voice of the child in the courtroom, research the background of their assigned cases, and advocate for the best interests of the child.

Although the training covers a lot of information, provides expert speakers, and prepares advocates through role play and the study of past cases (privacy insured), it all seems a but unreal for a new CASA until they're assigned a child.

The amount of responsibility you take on becomes quite clear early. These children are thrown into a court system they do not understand. Sometimes, they're taken from their parents indefinitely and placed with strangers temporarily while the courts determine their future. As an advocate, you may be the only person looking out for their well-being.

Back in 1976, Superior Court Judge David Soukup (Seattle, Wash.) was concerned with the lack of information about how the children were fairing in his criminal cases. No one was speaking for the child’s welfare. By January 1977, he had a pilot program implemented. There were 110 volunteers the first year, serving 498 children in 376 cases in Seattle, alone. During the next few decades, the replication of the initial program moved across the country. There are now over 1,015 CASA programs within the U.S.

CASA Lake County is located in Vernon Hills not too far from the Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Complex on Milwaukee Avenue. It is considered a non-profit membership organization. There are multiple fundraisers throughout the year to help fund the program. If interested in their training program, visit www.casalakecounty.com for dates and to investigate the application process. The commitment is major, but worth the effort in the life of each child. CASA volunteers run the gamut of differing professions, ethnic backgrounds, and possible time constraints. If becoming an advocate is too time intensive, there are other volunteer possibilities. Call 847-377-7975 for information.

Odie Pahl is a local columnist. Contact her at editorial@lakecountysuburbanlife.com.

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