Montana Justice Foundation and CASA: A powerful partnership for Montana kids
By Niki Zupanic
Montana Justice Foundation
They are essential links in the chain of justice. They speak up for the youngest and most vulnerable. They are CASA volunteers, advocating for abused and neglected children in Montana.
CASA groups are the only organizations empowering local citizens to speak on behalf of children in foster care. Their work is vital in “normal years.” During these challenging times, with Montana facing alarming increases in child abuse and neglect, they are even more essential. That’s why five of our grantees were CASA groups in 2021, and why this year, we hope to support them even more.
According to CASA of Montana, even though 914 volunteers were working with 2,253 children in 2020, nearly 1,000 children await an advocate of their own. Besides recruitment, groups face other challenges that come with Montana’s great size and rural makeup. One of our grantees, Eastern Montana CASA, covers 18 counties and 105 small towns! Their hard-working volunteers often drive long distances on two-lane snow-covered roads to visit children. With gas costs rising, a single trip for a volunteer can run as high as $200.
Our support of CASA organizations dates back more than 20 years. In 2021 and 2022, we made grants to CASA programs stretching from Libby to Ekalaka, including organizations in eastern Montana, and Yellowstone, Missoula, Lake, Sanders, Lincoln, and Flathead counties. Our grantees consistently deliver exceptional assistance, employing data-informed and evidence-based strategies that result in better outcomes for the children they serve. In December 2021, we invited CASA of Yellowstone County to talk to our Board of Directors and highlight their work (see sidebar). It was clear from that discussion that our grantees have been even more flexible and innovative during these uncertain times.
Your support through Montana Justice Foundation makes a difference to our grantees across the state. Unfortunately, our ability to fully fund the deserving organizations is in jeopardy. Historically low interest rates have devastated our funding from IOLTA accounts. Even as the need for assistance has never been greater, we have fewer resources for our grantees. In 2021, we had no choice but to reduce all our existing grantees’ awards, and even turn away new grantees. In each of our last 10 years, requests from worthy groups have exceeded our ability to help.
With additional funding from our foundation, CASA programs could recruit, train and retain many more volunteers. Your gifts would pay for educational sessions, producing materials and ongoing travel needs. With your help, we could fund more groups across the state, and possibly offer our current grantees technical assistance or strategic advice. Your support will help expand the powerful partnership between the legal community and organizations that make our justice system work better – for more than 3,000 of Montana’s most deserving children.
Niki Zupanic has been the executive director of the Montana Justice Foundation since December 2015.
Q&A with Emily Gaudreau, development director for CASA of Yellowstone County
MJF: When it comes to serving Yellowstone County’s children in foster care, what is the current situation for the CASA program?
Emily Gaudreau: The needs are great. Right now, we have 780 children in foster care in the county, making us the largest population by county of children in need in Montana. But we have less than 300 volunteer advocates. That means our CASA staff need to go through and prioritize, choosing cases where children were most seriously abused or severely neglected. We would like to serve each child who would benefit from having a volunteer advocate, but this is just not possible at this time.
MJF: What other issues are surfacing?
EG: A disproportionate number of the children we serve are Native American. Since we are a child-focused organization, we need to embrace the cultures our children come from and make our training and programs inclusive. We don’t just want to be “checking a box” on surveys about diversity – these are values we need to carry out in practical terms. We’re making real strides in this area.
MJF: How has Montana Justice Foundation helped with those challenges?
EG: Definitely by supporting training of new volunteers. Helping us to create quality materials and pay for the costs of holding our recruitment events, trainings and with recognition of quality volunteers. Recruitment and retention efforts really are key to our success and you support us in that way.
MJF: Has the pandemic affected how your organization works?
EG: Yes, very much so. We likely lost about a quarter of our advocates during the whole time, and some of those decreases are still going on. Some volunteers were unable to keep helping us because of Covid restrictions, or balancing their own family needs. We will need to rebuild. In a social system that is overloaded, volunteers and professionals alike are stretched thin.
The pandemic revealed stresses that were already present, though, that contribute to child welfare cases going up. Current challenges that we face are an increase in methamphetamine use – it’s linked to the trafficking along the I-90- corridor – which can lead to family breakdowns. The cycle of substance abuse is sometimes inter-generational. Poverty and untreated mental illness, too. These are multi-dimensional challenges.
MJF: Who is an ideal CASA volunteer?
EG: A volunteer makes a commitment of 18-24 months to help a child, 5 to 15 hours per month is needed. We have retired teachers and nurses – these are people who have skills to bring, but we also have young professionals and people with a variety of backgrounds. You can make it work So many potential volunteers don’t even know that they could excel in this role.
For some advocates, it can be tough, though. There really is such a thing as secondary trauma, which can affect a person who is advocating for a child. But it’s rewarding. Sometimes a CASA volunteer is the sole constant in a child’s life filled with turmoil and uncertainty. These children go from home to home, school to school in an overwhelmed system. Reliability from some adult is important. Volunteers see children through key milestones.
MJF: Given the tough situation, what keeps you going?
EG: In my three years in this role, I’ve always found it personally inspiring. I’m fortunate to be here. Everyone wants their community to be the best place to live and work and have friends and family. I’m no different. I truly believe that the best way to invest in the future of our communities is to work with our children.