25 Years of CASA Volunteers
“It will be hard, and I hope I can handle it. It will be worth it to help the child.” Annette Summers, CASA volunteer, 1997
“I think I look at things through a different lens now… it gave me a deeper sense of empathy for people and what they’re going through. Anytime I hear of something bad… I always wonder how they grew up; was there people there for them.”- Annette Summers, Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks, 2022
While attending a social work class at the University of Arkansas in 1997, Annette Summers found herself listening to a speaker presenting a brand-new program that was starting up in the area. The representative talked about a significant gap in the child welfare system- one that left children that faced abuse and neglect in a position of isolation. Removed from their home, too many children were navigating foster care, treatment facilities, court hearings, and school all alone and no one looking out solely in their best interest.
But the speaker had a solution. They represented a new organization that after three years of development, was now looking to train volunteers to advocate for these children that otherwise had no consistent adult figures in their life. The volunteers were to be the consistency the children desperately needed. Intrigued at the thought of working with children that sincerely needed help, Annette signed up right away.
That small organization beginning with only twelve volunteers and serving one county in Arkansas went on to train over 1,270 volunteers and serve over 5,000 children in four counties over the next 25 years. CASA of Northwest Arkansas now serves Benton, Washington, Carroll, and Madison counties and serves every child that comes into care in NWA.
“Whatever the speaker said must have really caught my attention and motivated me to sign up right away… It just made me really intrigued about that career path.”
Annette may not have realized then how much that day would come to influence her life, but she does credit much of her eventual interest in child welfare to her experiences as a CASA. At the time she was majoring in Business Management while taking some social work classes. After some time, she ended up finding herself working in child welfare in Arizona, San Francisco, and now Arkansas again. Now in her current role as the Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks— another CASA office located in Booneville, AR— she’s able to help children in a whole different capacity.
Speaking to how child welfare has changed over the years, Annette says, “Child welfare is a well-intended system. There is a lot more focus on trying to keep children with their families.” Over the years, child welfare has been more recognizing of the trauma pertaining to being removed from a home. “Things are more collaborative now. You’re encouraged to have different opinions between all the different stakeholders during staffings and meetings. Everyone’s voices are usually heard, and the judges are more familiar with CASA now. They look to the CASA reports as valuable information,” shared Annette.
CASA was needed back then because foster care can be lonely and scary as a child. Because of the high caseloads of other stakeholders (caseworkers, Ad Litems, lawyers, etc.), kids may not get the individual attention they need. “[CASA’s] serve that role of being a consistent and safe person for these children,” said Annette. Unfortunately, many of these circumstances still exist today, which is why having a CASA around for a child is just as important as ever.
CASAs are typically asked to serve as long as it takes for their case to be closed. After that, many choose to stay to take on more cases. Of course, life happens, and some volunteers end up departing our organization after a while. On the other hand, we have CASAs who have been with us up to 20 years! Others may choose to leave and come back. While our volunteer retention rate of 77.4% is strong, nobody can volunteer forever.
This is why every month, we host at least two separate CASA 101 Info Sessions, where anybody can come learn about what it means and what it takes to become a CASA volunteer. Next to retaining our volunteers, recruiting new volunteers is top priority. Making sure we can continue serving every single child who is a victim of abuse and neglect in Northwest Arkansas is our ultimate goal, and we can only do this by bringing in new volunteers.
When Annette Summers learned about CASA that day in class, it ended up influencing her life toward child welfare, and eventually leading an entire CASA program in Arkansas. Many other CASAs share how it has changed their lives as well; opening their eyes to things they’ve never seen before and helping children in ways they didn’t think possible. “Not only are you helping a child, in return there’s intrinsic value; it makes you feel good, to know you’re helping somebody. Some things are out of your control but knowing as a CASA you get to be there for them through it all is really important,” says Annette.