By Alexia Dolan
The Northern Kentucky Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) is looking to fill as many volunteer positions as possible, due to child abuse and neglect increasing post-pandemic. The program is designed to train and appoint volunteers who have a passion to advocate for abused and neglected children who are in the family court system in Kentucky and all across the United States.
“As the state association, we’re recognized in the Kentucky Revised Statute and we provide technical support and capacity building to the local cost programs, but our primary responsibility is to bring CASA to every county in the Commonwealth,” said CASA Kentucky State Director, Andrea Bruns.
Bruns began her CASA career as a volunteer in 2007, after relocating to Kentucky from Washington D.C. She chose her career path much later in life, after two decades of working in the trade association industry. She paved this new direction in memoriam of her mother, who was a CASA volunteer when Bruns was a teenager.
“Every day is a challenge, but every day is rewarding,” Bruns said. “Whether you’re a volunteer or a paid staff person, all are committed to the mission because this work is so important. We have to make forward progress by keeping the child in the center of every decision that we make.”
Currently, there are 80 out of 120 Kentucky counties with active CASA volunteers. Each volunteer goes through a 30-hour training process on the specific state regulations, as well as the national guidelines.
“Unfortunately, abuse and neglect is rampant and it increased throughout the pandemic along with the need for CASA,” Bruns said. “We are launching a statewide volunteer recruitment campaign in Boone and the other counties in Northern Kentucky.”
The recruitment campaign plans to run through 2024 and the goal is to have 1,500 statewide volunteers.
CASA’s hope is to be in 100 counties and they are confident making that goal a reality. There were over 17,000 new children placed in the Kentucky court system last year and 1,300 new volunteers recruited to CASA.
“These are children who are involved in a situation out of their control and it can make a huge difference to have that one consistent person by their side in a large system, often being scary to navigate alone,” Bruns said. “That’s what motivates me every day, ensuring that all Kentucky children in need have access to a volunteer.”
Volunteers are also trained in an active courtroom for up to six hours in order to prepare for any potential outcome and then given their first case, requiring all volunteers to visit the child
once a month.
“It’s not an easy volunteer opportunity, but the reward and need is substantial because it’s not something where you can go in and volunteer for an hour, so we want people who care about making a difference in kids’lives,” Bruns said.
In 2021, 3,758 Kentucky children were supported by a Court-Appointed Special Advocate. Eileen Donahue, the 2021 Bob Babbage CASA Volunteer of the Year, began her journey as a volunteer in Lafayette, Indiana, before her husband and children moved to Kentucky in 2012.
“I was working for a newspaper in Indiana around 2006 and the CASA group put a public service announcement ad in the paper, because they were looking for volunteers,” Donahue said. “I knew a little bit about the program, but I knew it was a big time commitment, so I ended up not getting involved until I lost my job, taking that as a sign I needed to join.”
In 2012, Donahue completed another CASA training session in Boone County, before being able to advocate for children in the Kentucky court systems for the last decade. When she is not focusing on her advocacy, she spends her free time gardening her favorite flowers in the spring with her four grandchildren, her cat Bonita and dog named Romeo.
“Being an advocate comes with constant new learning experiences, because every case is
different and challenging, but it’s also an opportunity to keep growing as a person,” Donahue
said. “I am also a vegetarian who advocates for all types of animal welfare issues, if that tells you
anything about my personality.”
Donahue mentions her first monumental moment, attending a live court session during her CASA training. She describes it as scary, but freeing once she became comfortable voicing her opinion after practicing her testimony. Donahue said she realized her advocacy was important because it impacted what happened in each child’s life that she was responsible for.
“My most memorable experience of this program is seeing children be adopted by their forever families,” Donahue said. “A particular bio-family voluntarily gave up their rights to a child I was advocating for, because they knew it was in the child’s best interest and although that situation was unusual, it was rewarding to see the children succeed after many trials and tribulations that I helped them work through.”
Donahue is a veteran volunteer for many different organizations aside from CASA, but she says that this organization comes with the most challenges and rewards. After winning the Bob Babbage Volunteer of the Year award in 2021, she credits her fortunate childhood for her generous and gentle nature, resulting in her giving back to the children who need it most.
“I was surprised to get the award in Boone County and then when I received it from the entire state of Kentucky, I was pretty blown away,” Donahue said. “Colleen Maier had complimentary things to say about me when presenting the award and I didn’t think I deserved it, but was honored to receive it.”
Maier, the executive director of the Boone County CASA, began her role of running the administration and its funding in 2006. There are two volunteer coordinators who work with her as well as 34 appointed volunteers.
“My favorite part of the job is working with all the volunteers and seeing them making a positive difference in the lives of these kids,” Maier said. “They’ve been involved for over a year and it’s great to see the growth once the child has a safe, permanent home and that might be their bio-parents, being adopted or just knowing that the child is safe.”
Maier graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a Bachelor’s in Social Work.
She lives in Walton, with her husband, Joe and her two boys, Gus and Jake. When she is not working, her family likes to enjoy outdoor activities, such as boating and swimming.
“Our volunteers have two cases at the most, which allows them the time and the energy to focus on those kids in those one to two cases,” Maier said. “Social workers have many cases where CASA has more time to delve deep into what’s going on with that child.”
A person who is interested in being a CASA volunteer can visit the website, to find out more information on how to sign up. Those who have empathy for children in tough family situations, as well as passionate about setting up every Kentucky child for the best life are the most viable candidates for this position.
“You don’t have to have a set background to volunteer, but we want every community citizen who has a heart for this, cares about children, and is willing to put in a lot of time and be able to see a situation through to the end,” Bruns said.
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