CASA of the High Plains is in need of additional volunteers to help local children placed under the protection of the family court system.

The non-profit will host a free informational meeting at 6 p.m. June 28 at First United Methodist Church, 305 W. Seventh St. Those attending should use the north entrance.

Anyone interested in becoming a Court-Appointed Special Advocate or learning more about the organization is encouraged to attend the meeting.

At least five volunteers would be needed to help the agency achieve a more manageable caseload, and more volunteers always are welcome, said executive director Lyndsey Crisenbery. There is also a particular need for male volunteers to help serve as positive role models to young men going through the court system, she said.

Volunteers must be at least 21 years old, have transportation and be able to pass a background check.

“When the volunteer is placed on the case, they really get to know the child and all the adults that have access to the child, whether it’s parents, foster parents, teachers, doctors, therapists -- anybody that has access to the child, they get to know them to get a good picture of what’s going on in that child’s life,” she said. “And then we make recommendations back to the judge on what we feel like is in the child’s best interests.”

Those recommendations often include long-term custody arrangements, whether it’s keeping the child in foster care, returning to the family home or being placed in adoption. Nationally, statistics suggest children served by CASA spend approximately eight months less in foster care and perform better in school.

Advocates also take the child’s desires into consideration when making recommendations, and often go above and beyond to make sure the child’s needs are met. In getting to know the child, additional recommendations can be made if CASA volunteers feel the child is being underserved in any way.

“If we feel like the child needs additional help in school, we can recommend that to the judge, or if the child needs driver’s ed, sometimes we’ll recommend that if there’s not a reason the child shouldn’t be getting it,” Crisenbery said. “Sometimes we pick up on weird things, like we’ll notice they’re struggling reading, so we suggest that maybe they get their eyes checked.”

The organization also strives to advocate for teenagers in the foster care system who are expected to age out. Those children typically have a high rate of homelessness or teenage pregnancy, she said, so volunteers work to make sure they have access to necessary resources.

“We do life skills assessments with them and then whatever that assessment shows, maybe the child needs help writing their resume or applying for colleges,” she said. “Just any of that, getting them ready for adulthood. We try to make sure they have those skills or resources or whatever we can provide to them.”

Volunteers are required to have a face-to-face meeting with the children they are assigned at least once a month, and more if possible. Traveling sometimes is required, as children in state custody often are placed outside the region due to a shortage of foster care homes.

Initial training is required for new volunteers in addition to continuing annual education. This year, CASA of the High Plains -- which serves the 23rd Judicial District -- is placing special emphasis on training in the areas of mental health, drug abuse, cyber bullying and sex trafficking. All of those issues, Crisenbery said, are challenges volunteers have encountered in recent cases.

The need for volunteers is partly due to an increasing caseload. Approximately 100 new family court cases come through the 23rd Judicial District each year, with 114 from June 2016 to July 2017.

Ideally, each volunteer is assigned only one active case to ensure they have adequate time to become familiar with the case and the child, Crisenbery said, but volunteers might sometimes be given two cases due to demand.

“I think it can be kind of emotional sometimes, but it’s really rewarding, especially when the outcome is positive,” Crisenbery said of becoming a CASA volunteer. “I think when the volunteers can see what they do matters and is really helping the kids, they really enjoy it and it’s a heart-warming feeling.”