Robert Johnsen lives in West New York owns a pretzel company in North Bergen – and spends his free time volunteering to help foster children get properly represented rather than lost in the family court system.
In fact, volunteers from all over Hudson County are giving back to their communities through the local branch of a national organization called CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Even young single people without their own children have been trained by Hudson County CASA to represent abused children in family court.
“Our volunteers are not mentors for the children,” said Beverly Savage, executive director of Hudson County CASA, last week. “They are there as the child’s voice and representation of the child’s interest in the court. They are responsible for the child’s case.”
CASA offers local orientations nearly every month for people who want to learn more about the organization, and CASA interviews each potential candidate.
No legal background required
Savage said the volunteers are not necessarily versed in the legal system. They may be teachers, salespeople, retired bus drivers, and anyone else.
“They are mainly people who have straight jobs but social-work hearts,” said Savage. “They are people who are committed to children, committed to social justice.”
Volunteer Board Representative Robert Johnsen said, “Our job is to learn as much as we can about these children and what they are going through.”
Johnsen added, “There is nothing more important than helping those in need, and I think children are the most vulnerable in our society.”
Volunteers may handle everyday problems or more complicated, legal issues.
“It could be as mundane as getting the child braces or summer camp, to asking that the child be removed from an unsafe home,” said Savage.
There are approximately 60 volunteers from Hudson County participating in the program, according to Savage.
Third largest population of kids
Hudson County has the third largest population of foster children in the state, after Camden and Essex Counties, according to CASA.
“We are the poorest county in the state,” said Savage. “We don’t have a lot here in terms of services, but we have a lot of demand.”
Savage added that the need for CASA volunteers coincides with the many poor child welfare systems throughout the country.
The most recent volunteer information session was this past Tuesday.
“We ask a lot of personal questions,” said Savage. “They also have to submit to a very thorough background check and fingerprinting, and then they go through 30 hours of training and that includes a three-hour court observation.”
Johnsen, the volunteer from West New York, said, “[CASA gives] you a background in some of the problems, challenges that children in foster care face. They educate you about how the foster care system works.”
Most volunteers complete the training in five weeks, and then they take an oath in front of a family court judge, according to Savage.
“We are officially sanctioned by the court system,” said Johnsen.
He added that every three months, the volunteers are required to return to court to give the judge an update on how a child is doing.
“I am there to give recommendations as to what is in [the children’s] best interests,” said Johnsen. “I owe it to them and the court to be on top of things.”
Volunteers may also visit the child at home or wherever the child may be living.
“The people who are charged with taking care of the children, at the end of the day, they are still state workers,” said Johnsen. “They are no replacement for a real family.”
Helped a family reunite
Johnsen added that he once helped a family reunite, and that that made him proud of the difference he is making as a volunteer.
With a CASA volunteers looking after them, children are more likely to be reunited with their families or adopted, and less likely to re-enter the welfare system, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
“We get referred the most serious cases,” said Savage. “For example, children who have had multiple placements, children who have been sexually abused, children of families with legal problems. Some of these cases are complicated.”
Savage added: “One of the things that is unusual to Hudson County is that we have a lot of large family groups. Our volunteers are willing to take on big family groups.”
CASA suggests that each volunteer take on one case at a time; however, some volunteers advocate for up to eight children.
“The model is one volunteer/one child, but we have some exceptional people here in Hudson County that are willing to take on more children,” said Savage. “That does not affect how one person can affect one child.”
For more information on CASA, or to get involved, call (201) 795-9855 or click on the website, www.hudsoncountycasa.org.
To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. “They are people who are committed to children, committed to social justice.” – Beverly Savage
“We are the poorest county in the state. We don’t have a lot here in terms of services” – Beverly Savage