A Voice for Those Who Can’t Speak Up for Themselves
by brooke wagner | photos by arianna skoog
Advocate: A noun. A person who publicly supports a particular cause or policy. In the case of CASA of Yellowstone County, an advocate means so much more.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates for children, their mission aims to advocate for a safe and permanent home for abused and neglected children in Yellowstone County. After undergoing specialized training, community volunteers become a voice for those who can't speak up for themselves. CASA currently serves around 255 children in the foster or court system who have experienced tremendous abuse or neglect. Since 2003, the organization has mobilized community volunteers to serve over 1,800 children within our area.
Development Director for CASA of Yellowstone County, Emily Gaudreau
Emily Gaudreau is the current Development Director for CASA of Yellowstone County. She focuses on engaging the community in the mission of the organization.
Gaudreau shares that the idea for CASA was born in the late 1970s from the experience of a Seattle-based judge. He found himself in the difficult position of making decisions in cases involving abuse and neglect without having the benefit of an insider's view of the child's situation; struggles, needs, and wishes. So the judge began to ask community members to volunteer to visit the child regularly and assess the environment to determine the best outcome for the child and family.
Today, the CASA program serves children on a national level, with programs in 49 states. Each CASA is local and unique to their area, enabling each program to respond to the individual needs of the court system and community where they work. CASA of Yellowstone County is the largest CASA program in Montana. On any given day, there are around 800 children in the Yellowstone County foster care system, accounting for roughly a quarter of children in foster care for the entire state of Montana. The need for representation for these precious souls is astounding.
Gaudreau says a CASA volunteer friend greatly influenced her decision for this profession. She recalls, "Hearing about his experiences working with the little boy and girl on his case made me realize what a need our community has to protect and advocate for vulnerable children in foster care.” Throughout her three years at CASA, Gaudreau has seen the powerful and life-changing impact an Advocate can have in the lives of children they serve.
CASA volunteer Corinna Byler
One of CASA’s 164 current volunteers shares a similar tug that led to her becoming an Advocate. Corinna Byler and her family moved to the Billings area 17 years ago. As a construction company co-owner with her husband, Byler says she’s "always busy, but always flexible." She found herself entering the empty nester season of life seeking volunteer opportunities motivated by the sentiment, “To whom much is given, much is required.” In 2015, her attention was captured by a billboard advertisement for CASA on Grand Avenue. After completing the roughly 30 hours of required training, Byler felt she had a general overview of the skills she would need to work with children and families. She was sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in May of 2015 and now, over six years later, is still going strong.
Byler thinks back over the past six years of service and describes things that, in her words, "fuel the fire" as she advocates for children in our community:
- The sparkle in his eyes as he spotted me at his school Christmas program.
- The phone call from his school to tell me, “He wants to talk to his CASA.”
- Her eagerness every Friday to dig into the chicken nuggets that I brought to school for lunch.
- The tears I caught on my shoulder as she cried to see her mom.
- The phone calls from his grandma, who just needs to talk.
- Being proudly introduced to his friends at the group home as, “This is MY CASA.”
- Knowing that the judge relies on my reports as I advocate for my kiddos’ wants and desires.
- Walking beside my kiddos as they transitioned to middle school like rock stars.
- The privilege of being addressed in the courtroom as I confidently speak for my kiddos.
Byler credits the incredible support offered by the office staff and peer coordinators of CASA with her success as an advocate. She says, “My fellow seasoned advocates are trained to oversee newer advocates as they navigate their cases, and are always available to answer questions and provide insight. There are many challenges. There are many heart wrenching situations and concerns. Oh, but satisfaction comes in many forms as well. It is a privilege to be a part of such intricate yet monumental details in a child’s life.”
A particular case that stands out to Byler involves a child named Samuel*, her first assignment of many over the years. After a short stay in his mother's care, Samuel returned to state custody. He eventually landed in a group home after a failed attempt to take his life and multiple visits to the Psychiatric center - all this by the time he was merely 8 years old. Byler recalls, "I can still see his eyes sparkling as I came around the corner at the group home for my first visit with him at that placement." Samuel was doing well at the group home until COVID hit and restricted his visits with his mom. Without these vital visits, Samuel's behavior began to spiral out of control. After much consideration, Samuel's social worker allowed him to move back in with his birth mom with a strict in-home safety plan in place. Byler says, "This is where my duties as an Advocate have become extremely valuable." She ensures that Samuel's needs are met and that he feels safe and monitors in-home services, as well as visits with therapists and case managers. She has advocated for Samuel to have a consistent mentor and checks in with his teachers at school to make sure his behaviors and grades are on track. She could even take him shopping to prepare for middle school - a task that would have been too overwhelming for Samuel's mom. In addition, Byler attends doctor's visits with the family and helps them process information and instructions. She says, "It has taken years, but I have earned the trust and respect of this family as well as the professionals linked to Samuel's care. My number one responsibility is and will always be to make Samuel's well-being and safety paramount. I will speak loudly and proudly for him. He continues to tell me that he wants to live on the moon but since that’s not possible, he wants to live with his mom - right where he is.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
At the helm of CASA of Yellowstone County, Gaudreau would love to one day be able to provide a Court Appointed Special Advocate to every child in the area’s foster care system. She reaffirms the organization's goal “to provide a safe, stable person in a child’s life who is committed to stay on their case and walk by their side through their time in foster care, until they achieve a permanent home. CASAs are responsible for visiting the children regularly at their foster home and school and gathering information from every adult and professional involved, including foster parents, teachers, and family members. With the information they gather, volunteer Advocates write monthly reports that are distributed to the judge and legal parties in the case. They also attend all court hearings to be the voice for the children in court. Throughout the length of a case, which on average lasts close to two years, professionals will change, foster care placements will change, and schools will change. In contrast, the Court Appointed Special Advocate makes a commitment to stay with the child throughout the duration of their time in the foster care system. They are the constant in that child’s life in a time of inconsistency and turmoil.”
Gaudreau closes by acknowledging that if we can create a better future for one child's life, a ripple effect of change can echo into future generations. CASA volunteers represent resiliency and hope for not only the children they serve but for our entire community as well.