At age 23, Meagan Duncan-Osborn is younger than most court-appointed special advocates.
Because of her own history as a foster care adoptee, she said she wants to be an example and a source of hope for future generations of foster children.
Duncan-Osborn was removed from her mother’s care when she was “very young” and placed with strangers for a while before her father’s parents were cleared to become her foster parents. They eventually adopted her around age 7, and continued to provide a home for other foster children. But both died within a year of each other before Duncan-Osborn was 17, leaving her to “figure out life” on her own after that.
She doesn’t remember having an assigned advocate, but she considers herself extremely lucky to have had loving grandparents advocating for her when she was in the system.
“These kids need support, someone to stick with them,” she said. “They might go from foster home to foster home, from caseworker to caseworker, and you want someone to stick with them from start to finish and know what their story is.”
More Umatilla County children will have that opportunity after 10 new court-appointed special advocates were sworn in Monday in a courtroom at Stafford Hansell Government Center in Hermiston.
Known as CASAs, the specially trained volunteers are assigned to be a child’s advocate as they move through the court system. They visit with the child at least once a month, attend supervised visits and court hearings, meet the foster parents and biological parents, study the details of the case and submit reports to the judge about what they believe is in the child’s best interest. In October, 73 foster children in Umatilla and Morrow counties had a court-appointed special advocate, but 106 did not.
“Since we got these ones sworn in, we can probably get another 15 to 20 kids CASAs,” said Jesus Rome, the CASA manager.
Duncan-Osborn said she remembers the disappointment of showing up to supervised visits with her mother as a young child, only to have her mother not show up. And she remembers the feelings of hopelessness that sometimes came after her grandparents were gone.
“Maybe these kids are thinking about running away, maybe they’re contemplating suicide,” she said. “I want to tell them ‘I was there and look at me now.’”
In addition to her own experiences, Duncan-Osborn said she learned a lot from the training classes she and the rest of her class of CASAs took. They learned about coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult cases, learned about the legal system and took field trips to talk to everyone from judges to a mother who was in rehabilitation as she tried to win her children back.
“It really helps you see all sides,” she said.
Many CASAs don’t have such a direct connection to the foster system, but decided they could give back to their community by being an advocate for some of society’s most vulnerable children.
Jimmie Wilkins of Pendleton said now that she is retired she has more time. She volunteers in hospice, helping people at the end of their lives, and she decided she wanted to do something to help those at the beginning too.
She said she was shocked to learn how few foster families there are in the area.
“Now when I’m at the gym or getting coffee and CASA comes up I say, ‘Do you know Pendleton only has three foster placements?’” she said.
She said being a CASA will be a challenge but she’s ready to put her Type-A personality to use in being the most effective advocate she can, with the help of Umatilla Morrow County Head Start staff and the more-experienced CASA assigned to be her mentor.
During Monday’s swearing-in ceremony in a Hermiston courtroom, Judge Eva Temple thanked the new CASAs for their willingness to give of their time. She said CASAs are “of great help” to those tasked with determining what is best for the child.
“I don’t know if you understand how much the CASA reports are valued by the court,” she said.
CASAs must go through at least 30 hours of training, but CASAs in Umatilla and Morrow counties usually go through 40 to 50, as UMCHS supplements the national curriculum with field trips to local sites related to foster care. Some CASAs only take one case at a time, while more experienced ones with time on their hands can take several. They are expected to meet with the child and discuss how things are going a minimum of once a month, attend court hearings, provide reports to the court and do whatever else they think will help them be an advocate for the child. Sometimes that includes things like referring the child’s parent to parenting classes and other resources to help them be the best option for their child going forward. Other times it means reporting to the court that they believe the child would be in danger if returned home.
Diane Shockman, Hermiston’s CASA coordinator, said the CASAs’ reports become an official part of the court record. CASAs are also able to access records related to the child’s case.
For more information about CASA in Umatilla and Morrow counties, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Shockman at 541-667-6169.