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Category Archives: Uncategorized

June is National Reunification Month!

“Reunifying children back with a parent is one of the best possible outcomes in dependency neglect cases because when that happens it means the parent has remedied the underlying issues and has shown that the child will be safe with that parent. CASA’s work creates an understanding of the child’s perspective and insight into what’s in the child’s best interest.  CASA volunteers work closely not only with the child, but also the parents, ad litems, DHS staff, counselors and others. This provides a unique and comprehensive look at these cases which is vital to the process of reunification.  CASA volunteers are invaluable to reunification!” – Honorable Judge Stacey Zimmerman


Each June, we recognize National Reunification Month, and take some time to celebrate the individuals and organizations that are putting in the work to support, strengthen, and preserve families.

The case goal for nearly every family involved in a foster care case is to be reunified as soon as safely possible. Aligning with the 2020 National CASA/GAL Standards, we recognize that:

  • It is in a child’s best interest to remain with their family of origin whenever possible
  • Children experience trauma when separated from their family of origin
  • If a child is removed from their family of origin, it is in the child’s best interest to be reunified with their family as soon as safely possible

Removing children from their families is, in its very nature, traumatizing. Removal causes trauma to children and to their parents, and this damage can impact a family system for generations. By being passionate advocates for safe and supported reunifications, we can help empower families to heal and reconnect.

CASA volunteers play an important role in supporting families to reunification by:

  • Helping foster families and biological families connect and communicate to build trusting and positive partnerships.
  • Assisting biological families as they access supportive services and increase family stability
  • Advocating for opportunities for quality family time to maintain and build healthy connections between biological family members and their children.
  • Exploring options for family placements and family contact. Family or kinship placements can minimize the trauma associated with removal from home, ease anxieties often associated with traditional foster placements, and maintain cultural ties for children.

CASA of Northwest Arkansas is proud to partner with families in the work of reunification. Every day, CASA volunteers find ways to support the biological family members on their cases. Whether by providing information about community resources, pushing for consistent and meaningful family time, or just being a listening ear to a parent in need, these volunteers believe deeply in the power of reconnection.

The work of reunification is hard. It requires a lot on the part of the family and those who are working to support the family. But when this hard work pans out, when children can be reunited with their families in a secure and loving environment, that makes all the effort worth it.

You can learn more about the impact of our volunteers here. 

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

Every year in April, you can find pinwheels throughout Northwest Arkansas (and across the nation!) spinning brightly in spring winds. These pinwheels, which often bring childhood innocence and playfulness to mind, are a national symbol for Child Abuse Prevention Month. During April, communities across the United States plant pinwheels as a reminder that child abuse and neglect are 100% preventable.

Strong and supported families are better equipped to care appropriately for children. Communities that are invested in ensuring that all families can thrive help stop child abuse and neglect before it even starts!

The Child Welfare Information Gateway has identified six protective factors that help families thrive:

  1. Attachment and nurturing in relationships
  2. Education about child/youth development and positive parenting practices
  3. Parental resilience
  4. Social connections
  5. Concrete support for families
  6. Positive social/emotional skills in children

CASA volunteers can play a vital role in helping the families that they serve thrive. CASA volunteers support not only the children on their cases but also the parents, grandparents, and

extended family members. CASA volunteers help connect children and families to community resources, find creative solutions to problems, and offer themselves as listening ears when needed.

As advocates for children who have already experienced abuse and neglect, CASA volunteers are committed to ensuring a consistent voice, safe home, and promising future for their CASA kids. Often, this is accomplished by supporting and working to equip families for successful reunification with their children. Setting families up for success is key to preventing future abuse and neglect.

This April, we invite you to get involved in National Child Abuse and Prevention Month by supporting our mission and work at CASA of NWA!

How can I get involved?

  1. Register for a CASA 101 information session and learn more about becoming an advocate
  2. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn
  3. Donate to CASA of Northwest Arkansas
  4. Visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway to learn more about their approach to prevention

Showing the love for our CASA kids!

It’s February and love is in the air!

From boxes of chocolates and bouquets of roses to heart-shaped cards and handwritten notes, Valentine’s Day is here and it’s time to show our loved ones what they mean to us.

But as with many holidays, Valentine’s Day can be a tough one for children and young people in foster care. Holiday class parties can be a reminder that you aren’t living with your parents. Valentine’s exchanges can feel isolating if you’ve just moved to a new school and haven’t made any friends yet. Living in your own apartment for the first time can feel lonely if no one sends a note reminding you that you are cared for and loved.

During this day of love, we are so thankful for our thoughtful, committed, and kind volunteers. They not only advocate for the children on their cases in the courtroom but also take the time to show love to their CASA kids, on Valentine’s Day and every other day. 

  • When Susan’s CASA youth moved into their first independent living apartment, Susan made sure to bring a Valentine’s gift to her regular monthly visit.
  • When Jessi’s CASA youth was living in a shelter setting, Jessi scheduled a Valentine’s Day visit and brought a stuffed animal, candy, and a treat specific to her youth’s home country.
  • Deborah visited with her CASA child and helped her decorate a box for her class’s Valentine’s Day party.
  • Jan wrote and mailed Valentine’s cards to all three children on her case.

The role of a CASA can be a very personal one. Through monthly visits with children, and regular contact with family members, a CASA volunteer gets to know the people and facts involved in a way that may not be feasible for a caseworker or attorney who has a much higher caseload. Assigning a CASA to only one or two cases allows the CASA to invest more time and attention to the case and creates opportunities for them to support children and families in ways that are personal and meaningful – like remembering to celebrate them on Valentine’s Day.

This Valentine’s Day, if you are feeling the love for our CASA volunteers and the young people they serve we invite you to support them by:

  1. Following us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn
  2. Visiting our website to learn more about the impact our volunteers have
  3. Donating to CASA of NWA to help further our advocacy efforts
  4. Attending a virtual CASA 101 to learn how YOU can become a CASA volunteer

Celebrating our Advocates for International Volunteers Day

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.  – Steve Jobs 

We have the privilege to come alongside our volunteers in the life-changing, and world-changing, work they do with the children and families on their cases. This month, in honor of International Volunteers Day on December 5, we wanted to share some of the ways our volunteers are changing the world and some of the things our Advocate Supervisors are thankful for about their volunteers. 

Amanda Q. I love how our Carroll County advocates are supporting one another! Several advocates had such a fun time hanging out at the State CASA Conference that they started planning monthly dinners together. Each month they select a different restaurant to go to. They’ve said that they enjoy learning from one another, and being able to chat with others that understand what it’s like to work a case. There is a wealth of information among this group of advocates and it’s great that they get to share with one another!   

Kayla T. Robin S. went to visit her CASA kiddo in her placement and shopped for her before traveling. I thought it was creative and sweet that Robin coordinated with her CASA child’s therapist and the child to video chat while Robin walked through the store so her CASA child could have some input on the items she was receiving. 

Victoria B. An advocate I really appreciate right now is Shannon B. She continues to do such a great job on a complicated case involving language differences, challenges related to older youth, and cultural differences. Shannon has done a great job making sure the youth and family feel supported culturally and religiously, especially during the holiday season. Shannon has been a great voice for the teen on her case as well. She (the teen) can always count on her advocate, Shannon.   

Rachel R. I am very thankful for my advocates who step up to help our kids in need by taking on multiple cases. I know it can be a lot to juggle for them but ensuring that we are serving and supporting all our kids is our most important mission. I am very thankful that our CASA team and advocates ensure that our kids receive the consistency that every child deserves, and the opportunity to make beautiful, happy memories during a difficult transitional time in their lives.  

Genia M. Some of my cases have been really challenging so what has been motivating me and my advocates is that we are here for a reason and can only do what we can, but overall our goal is to ensure that the children’s well-being is being cared for and they have permanency.  

Ryan B. Heather W. and Sam S.A.  jumped right in with the family on their first case. They’re very engaged and I can tell they’re paying attention to the details. I watched them engage with both Mom and Dad at court this week, and they were kind and professional and gave great explanations of their roles.  

Statler K. My new volunteer, Cristen B., is assigned to a young man who is placed in a residential treatment facility and whose siblings are no longer a part of the case. Cristen visits him at least twice a week in his placement. I really think having someone to visit, bring him lunch, and ask him about his day is giving him something to look forward to.  

From CASA of NWA to every one of our volunteers: Thank you for your ongoing efforts to change the world through the work you do with children and families in our community!  

If you would like to learn more about how to create change in the life of a child through advocacy, click here!

Strategic Conversations – Communicating while Black

October is here! It’s finally (and hopefully) time for cooler weather, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, warm drinks, and sleeping with the windows open. Additionally, the month of October offers several opportunities to celebrate diversity and bring awareness to issues of inclusion and equity in our community, with Indigenous People’s Day on October 9, National Coming Out Day on October 11, and the conclusion of Hispanic Heritage Month on October 15.

At CASA of Northwest Arkansas, we strive to have an advocate volunteer base that is not only reflective of the community we serve, but also conscious and compassionate of the difficulties different communities may face. We actively recruit volunteers who are representative of the children in our program, and are consistently seeking opportunities to train and educate ourselves and advocates in matters related to topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. We’d like to take a moment to recognize several of our staff and board members who presented an excellent training centered on these very topics.

Strategic Conversations: Communicating while Black, created and presented by CASA staff Eugenia Marks, Evan Jackson, and Kayla Tave, and CASA Board Member, Jerrilyn Dailey was delivered more as casual conversation than a formal training. Eugenia, Evan, and Kayla did an extraordinary job delving into a difficult topic and making attendees comfortable. This trio explored a variety of topics and tactics advocates can employ to build rapport with parents, children, and relatives on their case(s). In addition, they presented an enlightening perspective on how a family of different ethnic backgrounds may perceive the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the foster care system as opposed to their white counterparts.

The team discussed effective communication with Black families and prompted attendees to seek greater understanding regarding the history of race, power, privilege, and oppression while being mindful and self-reflective about personal biases. Effective communication is vital in building trust and understanding between advocates and the families they support, and this becomes even more crucial when dealing with families of different ethnic backgrounds.

The conversation delved into the importance of cultural humility, empathy, and active listening as essential elements of effective advocacy. By actively seeking to understand and validate the experiences of Black families, advocates can better serve their needs and help dismantle the barriers they encounter within the child welfare system. Eugenia, Evan, and Kayla also discussed proper ways of referring to African American families – ensuring that it is okay to say Black people. They explained how breaking down social constructs and labels can be powerful in understanding Black culture and family dynamics.

Beyond just understanding the challenges, the conversation also aimed to provide actionable steps that advocates can take to become better allies and advocates for Black families. By nurturing an environment of open dialogue, fostering cultural sensitivity, and ensuring representation, advocates can play a pivotal role in promoting positive change.

As advocates implement the insights gained from this conversation, our hope is that the child welfare system becomes more equitable, understanding, and responsive to the needs of all families, regardless of their background.

— Eugenia Marks, Kayla Tave

*CASA of Northwest Arkansas does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, selection of volunteers and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all volunteers and clients, children, parents or other family members and foster parents.

 

 

March Blog

Unassuming Heroes:

Crystal’s Twenty-Year Anniversary

at CASA of Northwest Arkansas

Crystal Vickmark has been an integral part of the business side of CASA of Northwest Arkansas during her nearly 20 years as our Executive Director.

For Crystal, though, leading CASA and the children we impact is a much more personal endeavor.

To understand just how personal our mission is for Crystal as she approaches her 20-year anniversary at CASA requires little more than a glance at the pictures in her office. Inside one of those frames rests the face of a young girl, one of nearly 20 children Crystal’s sister fostered at her home in South Dakota.

Crystal was around many of the foster children who came and went under her sister’s care, including the three her sister later adopted. But it was the little girl in the picture in Crystal’s office whom she grew particularly close to and remains a part of her daily thoughts even today.

“I keep it there and look at her every day for inspiration,” Crystal said. “What brings me joy at the office and my job is the people here. It’s knowing that the work we do is so important to so many.”

In celebration of Crystal’s 20-year anniversary at CASA, we asked her to reflect on some of the achievements, challenges, and milestones that she has been a part of leading during her time in Northwest Arkansas.

CASA: What does an Executive Director do?

Crystal: My director role has changed a lot over the past 20 years. When I took the position, it was everything; there was no development/communication staff, no office admin, no team leads, or even a program director. Our advocate supervisors did volunteer training and management, and I did everything else— fundraising, newsletters, letters, payroll, recruiting volunteers, outreach, etc.

Now my role is implementing and monitoring our strategic plans, ensuring that we are making movements toward our goals, and we are following policies and procedures and the law. I have the time and capacity to look forward. Back then, we were just making sure we were moving forward one day at a time.

CASA: What is a memory you have of the true impact a CASA Volunteer can have?

Crystal: There are so many volunteer stories that makes me go, ’wow, this is why we do what we do.’ [In one case], the teenager would act out after school after doing homework, and no one knew why. It turned out he had a second-grade reading level. It was the volunteer that noticed and brought it to everyone’s attention. Without the advocate, I just don’t think it would have been found out.

CASA: What have been some of the largest areas of growth you’ve seen for CASA?

Crystal: The largest areas of growth have been when we were able to purchase and move into our current building. We were able to triple our office space. This allowed us to add on staff, which in turn allowed us to recruit and train more volunteers, ultimately allowing us to serve 100% of children in foster care.

When we hit 100%, I cried. The goal setting was crucial; every day we could see how many more children we had to serve and how many more volunteers we needed to recruit to make it. We had been lasered focused, working towards this goal for so long that when we actually were about to achieve it, it felt like a dream.

CASA: What have been some of the most challenging areas?

Crystal: There were many difficult times over the years, but the pandemic… The pandemic was hard. I could not impart to my staff just how much we worried about their safety and their feelings, our volunteers, and the children we serve.

For the first few months of the pandemic, our leadership focused on our policies and how we can ensure the safety of our staff, volunteers, and children. There was no handbook on how to lead an organization through a global pandemic.

As time went on, the concern over our children didn’t wane. We knew children, who were no longer under the eyes of our teachers, were likely at home in less-than-ideal situations with underemployed and overly stressed parents.

We continually felt the weight of this responsibility of ensuring the safety of all these children.

We did have some positive changes that came out of it though. Like many organizations, we have been able to switch to a hybrid work schedule which has allowed many of our staff to adjust their schedules and create a better work-life balance. Our staff enjoys the freedom to be there for their family when they need them most.

CASA: What have been some of the most surprising areas?

Crystal: I didn’t realize how much community support we would have for our agency. I came in new to the NWA community, to Arkansas, and new to nonprofit leadership.  When attending meetings with other CASA programs, I quickly learned that other programs didn’t have the same opportunities that we did. Northwest Arkansas has a heart for philanthropy!

You just need to ask, and our community is there to support us.

CASA: If someone gave CASA $1 million dollars today, how would you invest it in the organization?

Crystal: Right now, there are three areas I would invest in. A parking lot, staff benefits, and family preservation.

Just before the pandemic, we completed the renovation of our Walker Family Foundation Training Room, which increased our training capacity by more than double, but then we went entirely virtual. As we’ve begun transitioning back to in-person sessions, a major problem became apparent— there are just not enough spaces for guests and volunteers to park onsite safely. So, we’ve had to begin capping our training sessions to ensure the safety of our guests, staff, and presenters.

I would also ensure our staff benefits are what they need to be. Even though we have made big headway over the last few years, I still have hopes of adding some kind of mental health component so that our staff and volunteers can have access to free mental healthcare.

Now that we are serving 100%, the natural next path is helping children stay in the home and not have to be removed. Prior to CASA, I worked in family preservation and feel that adding a CASA volunteer to the mix would add tremendous value to families in crisis, our community, and the child’s future.

CASA: What would next level mean for CASA?

Crystal: We are next level! I feel strongly that our CASA program is one of the top in the nation. On a local level, we are well known and have become an organization that our community wants to be part of. We meet all of our standards with flying colors and are always open to continual improvement.

If we were to add additional staff, it would be someone to help with data and data integrity. There are children we could help even more if we knew their educational, social, or medical baseline.  There are assessments available in our database, but we do not have the capacity to train our staff and advocates to use them at this time.

CASA: What is your superpower?

Crystal: My superpower is being able to hire people and get out of their way. I look for people that have different ideas, people that are excited about the mission and its potential and envisioning it together. There’s no way that this could happen without staff members committed to CASA.

CASA: Please describe our volunteers in one or a few words.

Crystal: Unassuming Heroes. Our advocates do not do this important work for money or fame, but because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they may not even realize the impact they make. A younger child might not remember their volunteer’s name as they grow up, or maybe even their actions— but their lives changed because of that volunteer. They were put on another path because of that volunteer. The impact is always there for the child.

Congratulations on 20 years, Crystal!

 

Want to learn more about CASA of NWA?

Interested in finding your own way to make an impact?

25 Years of CASA Volunteers

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.

If you’re interested in taking the first steps of becoming a CASA like Annette, attend a 101 Info Session to learn more about how you can advocate for a child today.

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