When Rachel Mitchell heard about St. Joseph County’s Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program from Paula Muhlherr at the Center for Social Concerns, she knew she had to volunteer.
“I can’t sit back and let other kids be abused—really be abused—and not do something about it,” she says. “I’m more of an action- oriented person. I wasn’t working 40 hours at the time. It was a perfect opportunity for me to sign up and do it.”
Mitchell, now a senior administrative assistant with OPAC, took training classes—eight weeks, twice per week—early last year and was assigned to work on a child’s case.
“They offer a ton of education sessions,” she says, adding that she heard a talk recently by Bruce Perry, a noted child and adolescent psychiatrist from Chicago.
“They give you an opportunity to really expand as far as you want to go, what you know about child abuse and neglect, how it affects society, where we are as a society with it. They advocate for the child.”
The arrangement puts the CASA in the center of a process, communicating with people involved, including parents, therapists, doctors, foster parents and others who don’t all communicate with each other.
“There are so many people you talk to when you are a CASA,” she says. “You are the one that gets to talk to everyone. My role is to go out and see these kids and anybody who interacts with them.”
The CASA evaluates whether the child is receiving appropriate services, such as whether therapist sessions are beneficial.
“These are just children,” Mitchell says. “They’re not thinking, ‘I’m not having a connection with this therapist. It’s not working for me.’ You kind of get to be who you are when you’re advocating for these children—your life experience.
“I think it also gives me more of an understanding of where people are coming from.”
Other people read reports of heinous acts and wonder, “What were they thinking?”
“You find out the back story and they were victims of huge violence and abuse themselves—not that that excuses it,” she says. “We have a big societal problem.”
The CASA reports to a court system that provides treatment for broken situations, but the cure lies deeper, she says.
“We’re at the end of it,” Mitchell says. “We need to start at the beginning, when they are babies, work with education for the mothers and that kind of thing.
“I felt sorry for these people. They had been so severely abused themselves. In my opinion, they should never have had these kids. They should not have been in charge of these kids.”
Mitchell is among more than 100 CASA volunteers in St. Joseph County, says Brenda Matuszkiewicz, executive director of the agency.
That’s a record number, but most are able to manage only one case at a time, compared to three cases in the past, because of busy schedules and more complex cases. Hundreds of children are on a waiting list for the help.
“There is a need in all the larger counties in Indiana,” she says. “You are the catalyst hopefully that gets everyone talking.
“You become the only constant in these kids’ lives,” Mitchell says. “Their therapist can change, their foster parent situation can change, they can be pulled away from their brothers and sisters. You are it.
“I was determined to be part of the solution. It really takes a community to raise a child. I make a difference in this kid’s life.”