Victoria Strayer well remembers the first child she selected in her role as a CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate.
As the senior vice-president of risk and compliance for the global company TSYS and the single mother of two daughters, the Ahwatukee woman already had plenty already on her plate.
But after learning about CASA of Maricopa County, she felt moved to help – and began to make the time to serve as an advocate for abused and neglected children.
“I’d never been one to sit on the sidelines, and I’ve always had a passion for children,” said Strayer, board president and co-founder of the nonprofit Voices for CASA Children.
“I was a single mom with a demanding corporate job, but after I learned about CASA advocates, it settled in my mind and in my heart. It was a blending of my love for children, and my interest in our legal system,” she explained.
With nearly 700,000 children nationwide and more than 14,000 in Arizona victimized annually by neglect or abuse, these kids are not playing with neighbors and making happy family memories.
Instead, they’re attending court hearings, adjusting to new foster homes and transitioning to new schools. That’s a heavy burden for a child to carry. With a CASA or guardian ad litem (GAL) volunteer dedicated to their case, these vulnerable children have someone by their side to speak up for their best interests.
Strayer is one of those volunteers who represent the needs of abused and neglected children in the foster care system.
Strayer is prone to radiant smiles when she recalls the life-changing experience she had when she became a CASA.
“I completed my training to do this vital work as a CASA in August 2010,” she said. “I remember the feeling of anticipation and excitement as I went to the courthouse to meet with my CASA coordinator and chose a case, a child that I would be appointed CASA by the Juvenile Court Judge.
“As I imagined the child who would become part of my life, I assumed I’d chose a young boy or girl,” she continued. “We have CASAs who connect most with various ages, including teens. I’d just raised two amazing daughters and did survive the teen years, but I was ready to connect with a younger child. What I learned is many times a CASA does not choose the child – the child chooses you.”
Strayer, who also served as a volunteer CASA peer coordinator for several years, said she has seen the same experience she had as the newly trained volunteers participate in their first case selection.
It reminded her of her first encounter:
“That day, I read each file with details of why a child had been removed from their home. I read about their trauma, hardships and needs. It became clear this would be a very hard day. For every file I set aside was a child who might not have a CASA.
“Then I read the file of a 14-year-old girl who had been sexually abused and neglected. There were facts about her behaviors and challenges in school; reports regarding her trauma therapy and struggles with self-worth. I read details that raised concern about other environmental and familial factors that could increase her risk. This teen called out to me from the page.
“That day I left the court with three potential cases, children, from which to choose. Yet it was actually never a doubt that I had to be this girl’s CASA.”
Becoming a CASA includes a complete background vetting and 30 hours of pre-service training. Each CASA is required to have 12 additional hours of training annually. Though the CASA has many areas of support offered them, stepping into the role for the first time can be a steep learning curve.
“My experience on my first case was compelling,” Strayer recalled. “I felt fear when I wasn’t sure I was connecting with this teen girl in a way that would allow me to best understand her needs. I felt hope when I gained her trust. I felt confidence when I spoke to the Judge in court about my recommendations for her best interest, and the judge listened.
“Some of my opinions aligned with the Department of Child Safety, some did not. I felt joy when my CASA child’s family was able to make the right decisions for her and she was eventually reunified into a safe, loving home absent of an abusive presence. I was forever changed by that precious life and have been enriched by every child since.”
In ensuing years, Strayer served as CASA for three additional children.
Cases generally last an average of 18 months, but CASAs are asked to be a consistent presence and commit to the timeframe the child is in the Dependent Care System.
“There are thousands of children in the foster care system, and we need more community volunteers to serve as advocates,” Strayer encouraged.
All 15 counties in Arizona now have CASA programs that offer recruiting, training and support of volunteers to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom and other settings.
Each is a program of the Dependent Children’s Services Division of the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts – a wieldy name for a program that has at its heart a concern for abused and/or neglected children that are in the state’s dependent care program.
CASA of Maricopa County, organized as a pilot program with funding from Phoenix Soroptimists and the Junior League of Phoenix, was one of the state’s forerunners, organizing in 1985.
With its myriad committed and caring volunteers like Strayer, CASA has advocated for more than 22,000 children since its founding more than 30 years ago. A video reviewing CASA in Arizona is available on YouTube under CASA of Arizona History Project.
Strayer was happy to be a CASA, but as the country and especially nonprofits were attempting to regain their footing after what is now referred to as the Great Recession of the late 2000s, National CASA advised that a 501 (c)(3) was the way to help local organizations. She and others committed to CASA of Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populated county, responded to the call to action.
Along with Robin Pearson, now VOICES Executive Director who was also a volunteer CASA, Strayer began researching what it would take to start a nonprofit. None had prior experience with nonprofits, so they started at square one.
In 2011, Voices for CASA Children was launched.
“We were just coming off the financial crisis, and because of funding issues in other CASA programs, we wanted to be able to help if needed, and early on we knew VOICES could be much more than just a safety net,” recalled Strayer, an Arizona native.
“I do admit I am pleased VOICES has evolved into a strong, sustainable organization and I am no longer the midnight marketing staff,” she laughed, recalling the early days when the founders undertook all jobs including designing brochures online and locating a suitable office space.
“The VOICES founding committee was dedicated to our mission, and the board, volunteers and staff are bold and visionary about the future. We have generous donors and have built trusted relationships with the court, our child welfare partners, and community leaders. In addition, I have an incredible, trusted partner in VOICES Executive Director Robin Pearson. She’s also a founder and we’ve been committed confidants in this quest, together, since day one. And being involved in experiences that include teams with shared visions is always more rewarding, for me, than a solitary endeavor; being one more reason I stayed passionately engaged.”
Strayer candidly shared a reason she said may be why she feels drawn to helping children.
“I, myself, was adopted as an infant. My birth mother was 13 when I was born. As an adult, I was fortunate to complete a search and locate her,” she said. “Perhaps this influences my passion to be a voice for children. Or, perhaps it’s just the Lord’s guidance for me to pay forward the blessings that have been part of my life. I also chose CASA because it allows me to blend my intellect, my heart and my tenacity into an influential and empowering force for social good.”
The nonprofit VOICES for CASA Children is a Qualified Foster Care Charitable Organization that “leverages the heart and treasure of the community to support the CASA program and the advocates serving the children, said Strayer.
Besides offering Advocates additional training on trauma and other topics helpful to their role, VOICES also provides regular CASA information sessions including online (Dec. 19, Jan. 2) and monthly one-hour lunch information sessions at their Scottsdale headquarters.
VOICES also cares for the children served by CASA, including by providing Hope Bags that CASAs can give their CASA child at their first meeting and extensive child enrichment opportunities so children can be exposed to normal life experiences and activities with their CASA, thus helping strengthen their bond.
Essential-Needs campaigns, like those for new coats, summer wear, back-to-school backpacks etc. are also popular with the CASAs.
VOICES actively encourages community involvement whether through becoming a CASA, volunteering at VOICES events or donating – which can be as painless as taking advantage of the dollar-for-dollar Arizona Qualified Foster Care Organization Tax Credit, or charitable sites such as Amazon Smile (smile.amazon.com), where Voices for CASA Children is a listed charity.
“It’s very simple,” Strayer enthused. “I’m proud to say over the past few years I’ve had over 250 orders benefit Voices for CASA Children. And yes, it works on Prime also!”
Giving, anytime of the year, says Strayer, is good for the giver as well as those who receive.
“As a mom, grandma, friend and corporate professional leading a global organization, my life is busy every moment. I have to be organized and intentional about my life. However, I believe when we are involved in philanthropy that inspires passion; the work sparks energy and hope,” said Strayer, smiling.
VOICES has been nationally-certified as a Service Enterprise by the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, and by Points of Life.
For more information on VOICES, see VoicesforCasaChildren.org.