05-27CASAVolunteers1-622x311Five area residents officially joined the ranks of the volunteer advocates with Cass County CASA during a ceremony Wednesday afternoon. Pictured are, from left, Kathleen Long and Michael Gray, of Niles, and Brooke Artley, Diana Nita and Don DeLong, of Edwardsburg. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

A loving household. Parents a child can trust to protect them from danger and provide for them. Stability. These are things that many take for granted — yet for children removed from their homes and placed into foster care, these concepts are simply foreign to them.

Speaking to the five men and women seated in front of the bench inside Judge Susan Dobrich’s courtroom Wednesday, Cass County Victor Fitz said that the efforts of the newest volunteers with the Cass County CASA (court-appointed special advocate) program can help these foster children overcome the world of “monsters” they currently occupy, so that one day they can experience the same joys of other children.

“One of the important things you do is to help them return to that land of trust,” Fitz said. “You will make a huge difference in the lives of these kids. You may not realize it…but those are things these kids will remember for a lifetime.”

The prosecutor was one of several county officials to welcome the quintet of new inductees into the local CASA organization during their induction ceremony that afternoon in Cass County Court. The five Cass County residents were sworn in as new volunteer advocates by Judge Dobrich following the remarks by speakers.

Joining CASA that afternoon were:

• Mike Gray, a retired pastor residing in Niles.
• Diana Nita and Don DeLong, a retired Edwardsburg couple and former CASA volunteers in St. Joseph County, Indiana.
• Kathleen Long, an office manager who resides in Niles.
• Brooke Artley, a volunteer with the Potowatomi Zoo who resides in Edwardsburg.

The five have spent the last four weeks undergoing the 30 hours of required training for them to serve as a volunteer with CASA, said James Ward, director of the Cass County organization.

With their induction into the program, they will go on to work between 15 to 25 hours per month with some of the hundreds of Cass County children in the foster care system, serving as an advocate for them in court cases — and, for many, as a friend and mentor.

“A lot of the children who come through our court system don’t have any positive adult role models in their lives,” said Cass County Court Administrator Carol Bealor. “[CASA] provides them with a good role model, as well as someone they can have fun with in their life. It’s really, really wonderful, and I want to commend you for being a part of that. It’s a real gift you give to the children.”

With the new round of members, Cass County CASA now has around 25 active volunteers, Ward said. The organization works with 40 to 50 local foster children every year, he said.

Unfortunately, with continuing issues with drug addiction in the county, the population of children removed from parental custody continues to rise, with more than 70 children placed into the foster system since last October, Judge Dobrich said.

“We’re always behind the curve,” Ward said. “So it’s great to have five more [volunteers]. We’ll need five more tomorrow I think.”