Sep 05 2018
On occasion we’re asked about the rigor of our 39-hour training program for new CASA volunteers. Some people suggest we might get more volunteers if training was easier or shorter, and they’re probably right.
But we’re not just focused on numbers of volunteers here at CASA of Travis County. It’s vital that we ensure high quality advocacy for children who’ve been through abuse or neglect. We recently asked our staff members why our intensive training program is so important when it comes to bringing in new CASA volunteers, and a few key themes emerged:
The High Expectations Set for Volunteers
“Why is a rigorous training program important? Well, for one, the job itself is rigorous,” says Training Specialist Wendy Morse. Chief Executive Officer Laura Wolf agrees, sharing that, “This volunteer opportunity is a truly awesome responsibility. Volunteers are responsible back to judges for the best interest of very vulnerable children. We need to ensure that they have all of the training necessary to be good advocates.”
“There’s a certain level of performance expectations on what we’re going to do on a case. We want to make sure those standards stay high. Children deserve that,” says Alisa De Luna, Senior Director of Community Initiatives.
The Safety of Kids
Our training process serves as a continued screening process for us, and a chance to really get to know our potential CASA volunteers. This gives us more time in person with people who may be interacting with vulnerable children, and more time for us to notice red flags if there are any. “The 39-hour training process gives us ample time to learn about the volunteers and make sure they’re a good fit for working with children,” says Morse, who is in those trainings every day getting to know potential advocates.
It also gives the volunteers time to learn the boundaries of their roles as advocates for kids. “Due to the population that we work with and the vulnerabilities of our kids, we want to ensure volunteers are fully aware of our guidelines and policies that dictate their relationships with our CASA kids,” says Child Advocacy Specialist Rachel Jackson. “The safety of the children that we serve is CASA’s highest priority.”
Continued Self-Screening for Volunteers
Morse shares that the training is not just about us screening volunteers for safety, but also about them screening CASA and the role for themselves and their life. “The training gives volunteers plenty of time to learn about our nonprofit to ensure that we are a good fit for them.”
De Luna said, “We want them to know what they’re getting themselves into, so they can decide if it’s the right volunteer opportunity for them. If we don’t give them that amount of time, then we’re not setting them up to succeed.” It is our goal that volunteers come out of training with a full picture of the responsibilities and time commitments of a CASA volunteer, and the 39 hours they spend on this training helps to accomplish that.
Cultural Competence & Addressing Biases
The training may be the first opportunity some volunteers have had to talk about different cultural backgrounds or life experiences. Training Director Lydia Garcia reminds us that “learning about and having dialogue around cultural understanding and inclusion, LGBTQ issues, poverty, addiction, abuse and neglect, etc., are integral to our advocacy to best serve our children. Especially if a trainee has had no experience with these issues, it’s important that we explore the experiences of many of our families without judgement.”
De Luna shares that training is also “good for checking personal biases. People come to CASA for so many different reasons and we all have our implicit biases. We need to be able to gain awareness of what they are and know where to check those biases and with whom.”
Basic Understanding of the System and Role
Finally, intensive training is obviously important to just learn the complex role of a court appointed special advocate. Advocacy Program Manager Greg Trottie says that training helps volunteers “be prepared to interpret all of the information that they’re going to acquire while they’re on a case and give them the knowledge needed to make a recommendation on what’s in the best interest of a kid.”
The child welfare system is complicated, and most people don’t have direct experience with it. Senior Child Advocacy Specialist Fran Markowski says, “The training really prepares you for understanding what it is that CPS (Child Protective Services) and the court system are looking at to resolve the abuse and neglect issues that brought the kids into care.” Director of Program Innovation Catherine Jones adds that “for volunteers who haven’t worked in the child welfare system before, there’s a whole new language to learn! There are a whole lot of issues that volunteers might not have been exposed to in their personal or professional life that we want them be aware of and prepared to navigate.” In addition, volunteers “need to have a general understanding before they're assigned to a case of the many dynamics they could encounter: domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, poverty, the legal system and more,” says Associate Director of Advocacy Audrey Sherman.
De Luna shares that training helps us provide “consistency to what everybody knows when they’re getting on a case. Through the training, our Child Advocacy Specialists have an idea of what volunteers already know. The teams working on the child welfare cases—judges, attorneys, case workers— they all have an idea of what our volunteers know as well. The training helps create consistency across the board for how we work.”
Garcia shares that our goal is also to give volunteers hands on experience through case study to help prepare them for their actual case. “While we can’t teach them everything they will ever need to know about how to be a CASA volunteer, our goal is to give trainees a solid foundation on which to build their knowledge and experiences as they advocate for the best interest of children.”
Volunteers continue to learn after their 39-hour training process. They learn from working their case, from talking with their Child Advocacy Specialist (their professional supervisor at CASA), from working with other parties on the case, and from their own research and continued training. In addition to the initial 39-hour volunteer training, volunteers are required to complete 12 hours of Continuing Education each year.
If you’re interested in the continual learning and growing experience that is volunteering with CASA, check out the Volunteer page of our website, or RSVP for one of our upcoming Volunteer Info Sessions.
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