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Event featured panel of volunteers, community officials to raise awareness

By KATIE FITZPATRICK

Staff writer

The main message at an informative community forum Wednesday night was that volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate can help make a positive difference in a child’s life.

The forum, held at the Calvert Library Prince Frederick, presented by CASA of Southern Maryland and the Calvert County Commission for Women, featured a panel of volunteers and community officials to raise awareness about CASA.

CASA of Southern Maryland is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the best interest of abused and neglected children, according to its website. The program recruits and trains volunteers to advocate for the best interests of those children in juvenile court proceedings throughout the region.

Calvert CASA Supervisor Hala Bizzarro said the program was started in 1977 by a Washington State judge “who wanted more information” about the children in certain cases before making a ruling. Bizzarro said the program “went nationwide” in 1984 and was introduced in Southern Maryland in the late 1990s. The program was started in Calvert County in 2008, she said.

Circuit Court Judge E. Gregory Wells presides over the Child In Need of Assistance docket, which he said is the “most challenging docket” he has. The families he deals with, he said, are in crisis and are dealing with drug addiction, financial issues or legal issues, and their children could be removed from them.

“The children need an advocate,” he said. “… The CASAs provide a very important role to the court.”

CASAs work as a “neutral party” to the case, he said, and provide information to the court and given an independent view from all other parties.

“You will make a difference,” he said. “It’s important that kids know that somebody will listen to them and that they care about them.”

CASA volunteer Stephanie Sprayberry said she has worked in human resources most of her career, and one good thing about the program is that it welcomes volunteers from all backgrounds.

“The good thing about being a CASA is you don’t have to have … a particular specialty,” she said. “You just need to have a heart for children and good common sense.”

Krista DiGeorge said she had always wanted to give back to the community, but due to the travel demands of her job, she hadn’t found anything that fit with her schedule until she read a newspaper article about CASA, which stated the “timing was flexible.”

In 2011, DiGeorge attended training provided to all volunteers and was assigned her first case in July. The initial entry into the program was “the most intense time,” she said, and later, she was able to be more flexible with how she spent her time volunteering.

“I still work, [and] I’m able to set up my visits ahead of time with the foster parent and do some [volunteer] work on the weekends,” DiGeorge said.

Perhaps one of the best benefits is the effect a CASA volunteer has on a child’s life, said volunteer John Santivasci. Santivasci said he joined the program because he enjoys working with children, but he was “shocked to see what goes on” in the county.

The first case Santivasci was given involved a teenager whose goals were to “stay at home [and] play video games for the rest of his life,” he said. By the time the case was settled, the teenager had goals and either wanted to join the military or become a computer programmer, Santivasci said.

“I think you can make a big difference in a kid’s life if you try this,” he said. “These kids appreciate everything you do for them.”

Not only do the volunteers advocate for the child, but they also provide support for family members.

Susan and Brian Reinhart said they have been foster parents for four years, fostering children with special needs. The couple has two biological children and adopted two children through foster care.

When a CASA first was assigned to her case prior to the adoption, Susan Reinhart said she thought, “Here’s another person who wants to put a check in the box.” But she soon realized the volunteer’s “heart really was for the kids,” she said.

The CASA worker assigned to her case supported the couple as they struggled with whether to adopt the two children they were fostering. Brian Reinhart said he is in the U.S. Navy, so he was gone for a year and a half when the adoption was taking place.

“When I left, we were still in limbo with the adoption,” he said. “… The CASA was able to provide a lot of support to Susan that I could only give so much over the phone. So, to have someone come to the house and actually hear our concerns, it was invaluable.”

CASA volunteers also work with various community agencies throughout the legal process.

Calvert County Department of Social Services out-of-home adoptions supervisor Patricia Berry said currently, there are 95 children in foster care. She said the CASA volunteer fulfills an important role as the “additional eyes and ears on the family.” The volunteers spend “great quality time” with the family inside the home and report honestly to the court.

“They work very closely with us, and we very much appreciate it,” Berry said. “… [The CASA] helps fill in the pieces of the picture as we’re working with the family to try to get safety and permanence for the children.”

Seri Wilpone, chief attorney with the Southern Maryland Legal Aid Office, said the office represents children who are in foster care, and CASA volunteers “can do things the lawyers in the cases can’t.” She said the attorneys have a much higher case load than the program volunteers, who generally work with one family at a time.

“The system works best when the court has the most information available to it,” she said. “Every little bit of information that can come to the court benefits the children, and as the child’s lawyer, that’s what I’m concerned about.”

Ken Wardlaw, assistant public defender with the Southern Maryland CINA Unit, said one of the “greatest roles” of the volunteers is to hold the legal system accountable for any holes in the system.

With the “limited amount” the government can do, and although DSS and the legal system work to help the child, “a lot of times, kids just need somebody who’s on their side,” said Calvert County Board of County Commissioner Susan Shaw (R).

Shaw’s own 22-year-old daughter “came to” her as a foster child when she was 13 years old, she said. Shaw said she did not have a CASA involved in the case, and she “kind of played that role” herself. During the times when her daughter was “difficult,” Shaw said she would tell herself, “Each one can save one.” She said it is “extremely meaningful” to have lived that experience and to see her daughter now doing well.

“It’s very important. You absolutely can make a difference, and I hope you will,” she said.

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com