Cindy Knight

Cindy Knight, executive director of the Crawford County Court Appointed Special Advocates, talks about updates in the organization during a luncheon celebrating CASA's 25th anniversary at the Meadville Senior Center Thursday afternoon.

For Madalyn Davis of Meadville, she had always thought of helping foster children, but she "just didn't do it."

While she was working, she had "minimal time" to volunteer, but after retirement, she heard Cindy Knight, executive director of the Crawford County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), give a presentation. It was then she knew she wanted to volunteer to make a difference in a child's life.

Since receiving training, Davis has been a court-appointed advocate for children for a year and a half.

"This is the best thing you can do next to being a foster parent," Davis said. "I go to every hearing and speak up. After all the attorneys have spoken, (the officer) says, ‘Ms. Davis, do you have anything else to add?’ I always make sure I go there with something to add."

Davis and dozens of other volunteers, board members, speakers and community members joined in celebrating CASA's 25th anniversary of supporting kids in Crawford County on Thursday at its annual Champions for Children luncheon at the Meadville Senior Center.

Knight explained what the process of volunteering with CASA entails: A volunteer is assigned to a case before visiting with the child. The volunteer advocates for any needs the child has and makes recommendations to the court based on the time spent with the child.

Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz presented some background on the origins of CASA, which dates back 43 years when a juvenile court judge in Seattle named David W. Soukup believed he didn’t have enough information when he had to decide a case and what was going to happen to a 3-year-old girl who had been abused and neglected. By 1984, Soukup's idea, which found its start in Washington state, had grown to the national level.

In Crawford County, Schultz said a group of foster parents and Gordon Miller, a former county Court of Common Pleas judge, came together to create the first local CASA chapter and start volunteer work in 1994. Since then, Crawford County CASA has had more than 102 volunteers and has served more than 410 abused and neglected children, according to Schultz.

"If there’s one thing I know, 410 is better than zero," Schultz said. "What a wonderful thing an idea can be when good people act upon it. CASA has become a part of our proud, local history in this community."

Guest speaker Julie Maguire, a retired Erie School District teacher/administrator, spoke about her challenges in restarting the disbanded CASA chapter in Erie County and the importance of CASA when she was as a foster parent to her now-adopted son, Matthew. She recalled the caseworkers and guardian ad litem who were also working on Matthew's behalf and said "the only person who really didn’t have an agenda except to work for Matthew’s best interest was the CASA volunteer."

Maguire admitted she didn't always agree with the CASA volunteer's decisions, but she felt because of the volunteer's objectivity she could trust Matthew was safe and his birth mother was getting the support she needed.

After the luncheon, Knight said it takes "dedication" to work with CASA, "but mostly you have to care about these kids in our county."

The chapter recently wrapped up volunteer training but plans to hold another training in the spring, according to Knight.

"We’re sustainable," Knight said in an interview. "We’re passionate about our mission. It’s taken us 25 years to get to the place we are now in serving all those kids. I think that’s quite an accomplishment."

Davis noted that "once you sit down with a child in a non-threatening manner, then they spill their guts" on their situation, and she said she felt supported in the role of advocate by those at CASA.

"I would say to anyone who’d like to do something with children, this is a great place to do it," Davis said.

Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at tdague@meadvilletribune.com.

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