By Jennifer Hill Robenalt
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Travis County has a big job to do. And their volunteer advocates are at the heart of their service to children. It’s CASA’s mission to provide every child who’s been abused or neglected a dedicated advocate speaking up for their best interests in court, at school, and in the community. Volunteer advocate Dionn Schaffner continues her mother’s legacy of service while setting an important example for the next generation.
AF: Dionn, you’ve been a CASA volunteer for two years. How did you get involved?
DS: My mom was a CASA volunteer. She was a retired nurse and CASA was one of the service projects that she did during her retirement. About two and a half years ago, my mom passed away and we held a celebration of life for her. During that event, a lot of people from these different organizations came forth and told us stories about my mom and the work that she did. It was really an amazing moment for me and my family, because we were hearing all these things about my mom. I began thinking back over her life and our life together. She always had this element of service. And it was interesting to me that although we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, she always found a way to give back.
AF: So, you made a decision to give back just like your mother?
DS: I’d been giving back for a while without realizing the source of my inspiration. In that moment it clarified that anyone can make a difference. You don’t necessarily have to write this huge check. You can give your time and your talent and really make an impact. My sister and I started a nonprofit that focuses on encouraging people to do just that. Later, I saw a Facebook ad about CASA needing volunteers. And I thought, you know what? This is a great way to carry on my mom’s legacy.
AF: What happened when you went to CASA to volunteer?
DS: I attended a training and jumped right in. As I was going through that training, I learned about the makeup of the children in child protective services. The African-American kids are overrepresented. There are a lot in the system, but there aren’t a lot of African-American or female African-American volunteers. I felt I could make a significant impact by having this role at CASA. There are all of these kids who are in the system who don’t have somebody focused and looking out for their best interests— between school and medical needs and other areas, they are in the system trying to navigate major traumatic situations. I thought, this is right in my wheelhouse. I’m in it right now with my two teenagers. I am all over this crazy business right now. So, it was just a great opportunity for me to layer in the things I’m already doing in my everyday life—organizing, setting appointments, making calls and to do it for someone else too.
AF: What are some of the things that you do for kids as a CASA volunteer?
DS: We are designated as the guardian ad litem and that includes being an educational ad litem. We do everything including making sure that the services mandated by the court are being fulfilled. There are many different resources that are available to our kids in the system. Oftentimes it’s hard to make sure that all those resources get to them. The Child Protective Services (CPS) system is really overwhelmed. The caseworkers are doing the best that they can, but sometimes they have fifteen cases or more that they’re working on. From a logistical side, I help manage some of the elements of getting the right resources to kids. On the personal side, it’s being a consistent, warm, friendly face to the kids and letting them know I’m here for them. I’m trying to make sure that their voices are being heard as they navigate the CPS process.
AF: It sounds like a very intense commitment.
DS: It’s quite manageable. I’m enjoy managing tasks, timelines, and objectives. For me, it’s not overwhelming because this is something I already do. You’re not volunteering 10 hours a week, every week. Sometimes there’s a flurry of activity. Other times, things are progressing along, and you can check in with the various resource providers. Volunteers can feather in their CASA activities during regular times. For instance, I make calls to teachers and resource providers while I’m sitting in the carpool line waiting to pick up my kids.
AF: Is it important to you that your kids know that?
DS: Yes, very much so. Sometimes I feel we live in a bubble. I believe my volunteering gives them perspective on how different families live and the struggles they have. My kids have pretty much everything they need. They go to a nice school and live in a great neighborhood. I worked hard to get here. But not everybody has the same opportunities. So, I like that our family does a lot of service outside of our area to make sure that my kids recognize that we have privileges that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
AF: What do you think the community should know about CASA?
DS: CASA fills in the gaps. There are many amazing organizations in Austin that provide resources for children. We help get people to the right places and to the right resources. Whatever sort of time that you have available is time that you can provide to somebody else who can really use it. CASA tries to leverage the whole organization to gather all of that knowledge and share it amongst ourselves. That’s why we have volunteer meetups and great trainings.
AF: On an emotional level, what are some of your thoughts about volunteering at CASA?
DS: I feel for these kids because it’s by no fault of their own that they’re in these challenging situations. It’s hard for them to talk about where they’re at or for them to see a different path for themselves. That’s been the hardest. They’re having to cope with other people’s decisions. But the big thing for me is that I take these experiences back to my own life in dealing with not only my own kids, but other people. Even with adults I ask myself, what trauma has brought them to this place? I don’t get as frustrated with people, and I’ve started thinking about where they came from emotionally. We are all products of our experiences and some people’s experiences have been more traumatic than others. All of the things that we do as adults or teenagers are in response to the experiences we had earlier in our lives. Being a CASA volunteer has changed my perspective.
Want to Volunteer in the New Year?
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Volunteers
▶ Get to know the child(ren) while also gathering information from the child’s family, teachers, doctors, therapists, caregivers, and anyone else involved in the child’s life in order to make independent and informed recommendations to help the judge decide what’s best for the child.
▶ Be a consistent adult presence for a child or family of children throughout their entire Child Protective Services (CPS) case. Volunteers commit to spending 15–20 hours per month for the duration of one specific case (17 months on average).
Early Family Engagement (EFE) Volunteers
▶ Focus on ensuring that children remain connected to their families from the earliest stage of a CPS case.
▶ This short-term, fast-paced role conducts initial visits and assessments with children, their caregivers, their parents, and other relatives, to represent CASA at the first case hearing.
▶ EFE volunteers commit to spending 10–12 hours per case over a 7 to 10-day period, completing a minimum of six cases per year.
Family Finding (FF) Volunteers
▶ Provide specialized support to a CASA volunteer in locating and engaging relatives, by conducting data-mining, reviewing case files, and doing online research to locate disconnected relatives, and contacting relatives in an attempt to engage or re-engage them in the lives of children.
▶ FF volunteers commit to approximately five hours per week on a case in this specialized support role. Cases range from two weeks to five months depending upon the needs of the children and family.
For more information about volunteer opportunities, visit www.casatravis.org.