The Seventh Circuit CASA Program
Kehala Two Bulls, Executive Director | Anne Dunne, Administrative Assistant
Shirley Sutherland, Interim Executive Director and Volunteer Coordinator | DeNean White, Volunteer Coordinator
When children come into the court system, they have lost a lot—their families, their pets, and sometimes their siblings—at no fault of their own. Many have been hurt within the home, or removed for their own safety. In cases where legal representation is assigned by the state, most courtrooms will not have children appear in front of the judge. This is where the Seventh Circuit Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program steps in—to give a voice to children in need.
It all started in 1977, when a Seattle juvenile court judge was concerned about drastic decisions that were being made in the life of a particular child. The judge didn’t think that the full story was in play, so he used this one case to begin a program of volunteer citizens to act on behalf of children. The concept was to train these volunteers in the special skills needed in the courtroom, ensuring that they would act in the children’s best interest, without any personal or other agenda.
South Dakota began the program in 1986 in Rapid City; in 1988, CASA assigned the first volunteer at the Seventh Circuit CASA Program, which serves Pennington, Custer, and Fall River counties. In the past 30 years, the program has been able to represent more than 1,300 children with the help of dedicated volunteers in the Black Hills.
“We’re all like jigsaw puzzle pieces,” explained Shirley Sutherland, Interim Executive Director and Volunteer Coordinator at the Seventh Circuit CASA Program. “We want these children to be in a safe, loving environment; we want them to be taken care of.”
Shirley has been a part of CASA’s mission for the past 17 years. Starting in Delaware, Shirley was inspired to volunteer through a friend who worked with child abuse awareness. When Shirley’s husband’s military posting took them to life in Oklahoma, where there was no CASA program, she saw an opportunity. She started the program from the ground up, and eight years later, the Third District CASA in Altus had trained more than 100 volunteers and represented more than 300 children.
Naturally, when the Shirley’s life took her to Rapid City, she again sought out the local program as a volunteer. Now, as a Volunteer Coordinator, she is educating others on the importance of CASA in the community, as well as its purpose within the courtroom.
“Judge Robert Gusinsky—who is our acting judge for neglect and abuse crime—takes into account the information the CASA volunteers provide,” Shirley explained.
CASA volunteers will write reports, just as the Department of Social Services does, to transmit information about children to the judge to consider. In these reports, volunteers will talk about things the children like to do and oftentimes things they hope for, including seeing their pets or receiving sibling visits, if they have been placed with different foster care providers.
The CASA volunteers visit their appointed children once a week, and really get to know each one. “They go on outings, attend plays at school, and spend time with them,” said Shirley. “CASA volunteers get to know the children so that they can feel safe to talk about the things they miss.”
The goal is to determine what is in the best interest of each child—ultimately finding a safe, permanent home and the opportunity to thrive. This goal has attracted the attention of the newly appointed Executive Director of the Seventh Circuit CASA Program, Kehala Two Bulls.
“I really respect the volunteerism from the community by putting the children and their individual needs at the center, without imposing an outside agenda,” she expressed. “It think it is a beautiful model, and I am proud and excited to begin working here.”
The volunteers are the heart of CASA initiatives across America, and learning how to help is not as difficult as one may think. CASA provides extensive training—all the way through the volunteers’ swearing-in at court.
“CASA volunteers get to be a positive resource to these children to help them turn a bad situation into something that can benefit them down the road,” Shirley explained. “Our children are our most valuable and vulnerable resource, and they need to be protected. You just need to have the heart and the determination to say ‘I want to make a difference in a child’s life.’”
By Jenna Carda
Photos by Legacy
Volunteer training will begin March 11, 2017.
For more information, visit casaofrapidcity.org.