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Heather Blanchard, Executive Director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of South Louisiana (“CASA”) joins Discover Lafayette to discuss their mission to help children and families when there has been abuse or neglect.
Heather is a passionate spokesperson for CASA, having first served the organization in her first job after college, then served on its board for six years, and returning to lead as Executive Director. CASA of South Louisiana is now partnered with the United Way of Acadiana and housed in its office to more effectively leverage its resources.
“CASA volunteers are the eyes and ears for the judge. They work with the families, the teachers, and the counselors. Ultimately they write a report to the judge on what is happening in the child’s life and recommend where they should be permanently placed.”
CASA works to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect. Through its volunteers, CASA advocates for safe, permanent, and nurturing homes for children who through no fault of their own have been removed from their homes and must rely upon the court to decide their future.
CASA of South Louisiana works within the 15th Judicial District Court which encompasses Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermilion Parishes. The Louisiana Children’s Code lays out the responsibilities of CASA and its trained volunteers who provide independent, third-party, objective assessments of what they see. Funding is provided by the Louisiana Supreme Court CASA Assistance Program, Victims of Crime Act Funding, the Louisiana Children’s Trust Fund, and grants.
Volunteers go through thirty hours of training, serve without compensation, and are appointed by the court exercising juvenile jurisdiction. The judge of the court will verify the volunteer’s qualifications, training, and ability to serve as a CASA volunteer, including the ability to represent and advocate for the best interest of the children assigned to him. No volunteer is assigned until a comprehensive criminal background check has been conducted. When asked who the ‘best’ volunteers are, Heather jokingly said, “Our best volunteers are retired teachers. They’ve seen and worked with all different walks of life so they are very understanding.”
A CASA Volunteer spends time with their assigned child or sibling group getting to know the child while also gathering information from the child’s family, teachers, doctors, caregivers, and others involved in the child’s life. Approximately every six months, a report is prepared for the judge (with help from an assigned Supervisor) sharing recommendations for the child’s care. Learn more about volunteering with CASA of SoLA at casaofsola.org.
Heather stressed that nine times out of ten, a child is better off with their family of origin. When they enter the foster care system, the first goal is always reunification with their family. Children aren’t normally removed from their families unless there is harm involved, as removing a child from their home is very traumatic. In some cases, CASA volunteers assist in the family home to monitor circumstances and provide resources. Heather gave one example of a mom who had her children taken away because at meal time she would throw potato chips on the floor. “She didn’t know better. That is how she was raised. She needed training and support. She loved her children but didn’t know better.”
The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (“DFCS”) which oversees foster care services has lots of turnover and is short-staffed. CASA provides much-needed resources to help families meet the requirements to get their lives back on track. A study showed that only about 23% of families had the necessary resources to meet the requirements placed upon them by the court to be able to emerge from the system. CASA helps parents sign up for classes, arrange childcare so they can attend court-ordered classes, or provide food for the family for those times that the parent must be away.
In many cases, foster care is generational. Living in poverty with few resources, many will turn to the system to get needed state resources. In the twenty-plus years Heather has worked with CASA, she has seen families where the grandparent, parent and now child are in the foster care program. “The thought at the state level is evolving to provide resources before a child goes into foster care, to prevent the situation. Foster care costs a lot. It costs less to provide resources on the front end. It also stops the trauma. Then people won’t look at foster care as an option when they have children.”
The Superhero Celebration will be held May 12, 2022, 6 pm. at the Truss Room as a way to highlight the work of CASA’s volunteers. This is a new signature event for CASA of South Louisiana and proceeds will help the organization expand the population being served. There will be a Wine Pull and silent auction, but most importantly you can learn more about the “CASA’s” who help our children and families in need. Tickets may be purchased here.
We thank Heather Blanchard for her devotion to helping children in need of stable lives. Please visit https://www.casaofsola.org/ for more information.