Court Appointed Special Advocate and Guardian Ad Litem volunteers (CASA and GAL, respectively) can make an enormous difference in a child's life. “CASA's sometimes the only one that tells them they're worth it,” said Tonya Ruble-Richter, co-executive director of Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children, Inc. 

Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children coordinates CASA and GAL volunteers for Jefferson and Ripley counties, though as of Jan. 1, 2022, the program has split into two entities due to the growth in Ripley County's program. Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children will continue serving Ripley County and Jefferson County will have its own program, Child Advocates of Jefferson County, Inc. Ruble-Richter will remain co-executive director, a role she shares with Melissa Herzner, until the end of January.

So, what is CASA? It's a national program – Indiana's CASA program is the second largest in the country, serving 88 of 92 counties. “We recruit, train and support volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children in the child welfare system. Best interest advocacy is what it is,” Ruble-Richter explained. In these scenarios, everyone, the Department of Child Services and parents, have attorneys, but “the child is not really being represented,” she said. 

“When you go into the courtroom for these cases, everyone has an attorney but the child,” Ruble-Richter elaborated. “DCS [department of child services] has an attorney, the parents have attorneys and the child is in there not really being represented. We exist to basically stand in the gap of that system for the child.” Current laws protect parental rights and DCS works to reunify children and their families, “and sometimes,” Ruble-Richter noted, “what's best for them gets lost in that.” What's best for the child varies, “every kid is different, every case is different,” she said – maybe a child would benefit from a different therapist, for example, or they're not doing well in school or parental visits – CASA volunteers might advocate to place the child with a different therapist, change location, supervision status or end parental visit or even advocate for reunification or termination of parental rights. “Their job,” Ruble-Richter summarized, “is to talk to everyone, to investigate the entire case and report back fact-based recommendations to the judge.” In addition to that element, “a lot of times we become that child's person,” she said; “we are the one that they trust, we are the only person that's there solely for them – the therapist and all of those people, DCS is their client, technically. So [the therapist, etc.] are all working with DCS and we are the only ones who are not involved in the system. We are the only ones who go in there, look at everything from the child's lens and advocate for that child, specifically.”

How important is a CASA volunteer in a child's life? “A lot of times,” Ruble-Richter shared, “we're the one that they'll text if they get an A on their test, we're the ones that get a text if they had a really bad day at school, or they'll call. We become the person who stands by them as they go through all this – and it's such a stressful, stressful situation for these kids. The CASA often becomes the person that they can lean on – it is all the stuff that we do for the court [but] also becoming that constant for that child. It's really cool.” Ruble-Richter said data indicates children in the system who have a CASA volunteer representing them receive more services and is in the system for less time. 

Information on in.gov/courts/iocs/galcasa indicates Indiana GAL and CASA volunteers represented children involved in 23,699 abuse or neglect cases statewide in 2020, with 813 new volunteers undergoing approximately 24,000 hours of initial training that year. Data on nationalcasagal.org shows:
1. 92.2% of judges nationwide report the impact of CASA/GAL volunteers as being “most pronounced” in promoting “long-term well-being.”
2. 83% report the impact of CASA/GAL volunteers as being most pronounced in “providing appropriate services to child and family.”

3. 79.9% report the impact of CASA/GAL volunteers as being beneficial to “psychological well-being.”

4. Over 93% of judges report a positive experience with the CASA/GAL program.

National CASA and GAL statistics also illustrate the volunteers' effectiveness – in four out of five cases, all or nearly all recommendations by CASA or GAL volunteers are accepted.

“It's all led by people who want to make a difference,” Ruble-Richter described CASA and how she and Herzner came to be involved, themselves. Herzner will be director of the Ripley County program after the two programs split and initially became involved as a volunteer. “The reason why I got involved,” Herzner shared, is “because in Kentucky, where my husband is stationed, they had a CASA program come in and talk to,” the military spouses – Herzner's husband is military. “I thought on it for months before I went in,” Herzner said. When she learned she was moving to Indiana, she contacted Ruble-Richter about volunteering here, then applied for the director position when it became available. “Just wanting to help children,” is why Herzner began volunteering and eventually moved up to director, “there's so much abuse out there, so much neglect, you hear all the time, people say, 'I don't know how that parent can do it. I always say, well, I don't know how I can stand [on] the sidelines if I'm not going to – I want to get in there and help,” Hernzer said, adding, “as you're helping, you're changing a child's story.”

“You're either shedding tears for happy or shedding tears for sad,” Herzner said. “But – when you walk into a room – one of my CASA kiddos had over 20 providers in this room and he would walk in and look for me, 'where's Melissa, where can I sit?” “You were his safe zone,” Ruble-Richter said of the case Herzer described.  “I'm a safe zone,” Herzner agreed, “they still reach out to me, the family that adopted him, and because I did know him so well, providers would reach out to me and say, 'this is what we're noticing,' and 'what have you noticed in the past,” because the child's providers had changed so frequently. 

Sometimes all the child needs is someone to listen, “literally,” said Ruble-Richter, “some of our kids have never heard that before. Some of them don't have future goals. They've been living in survival so much, they have no idea that there's another way, that adults can be loving and caring and nurturing.” Seeing that change, “it's really cool,” Ruble-Richter added. “It is,” Herzner chimed in, “you know, they always have the fight or flight and you just keep showing up until that fight or flight is gone with you because you're their constant person – I see that a lot, because there are volunteers that second-guess, and you're just like, 'look how far they've come, they're still here, but look how far they've come, just keep showing up.' That's what we do.”

Those interested in volunteering as a CASA or GAL can apply online at voicesforchildren.net, call the Ripley county office at 812-933-0333 or email Melissa Herzner, director, at melissa@voicesforchildren.net.