CASA of Oklahoma County: Lifting Up a Child’s Voice - 405 Magazine

CASA of Oklahoma County: Lifting Up a Child’s Voice

In a perfect world, their help wouldn’t be needed at all – but when children are placed into the foster care system, the efforts of those who volunteer for the Oklahoma County Court Appointed Special Advocates can make all the difference.

I Watched The New Family Before The Adoption Judge.
As A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), I Followed These Children Through The Vagaries Of
The Social Welfare System.

As a CASA, I spoke for the children’s interests, and I feel pride to this day for what I contributed. They were leaving the past behind and moving toward the future. Alongside feelings of joy, I felt regret for the children’s trauma, for their memories of parents unwilling, for various reasons, to protect them. The judge asked if I, as CASA, approved of this adoption.
“Yes, without a doubt.”

I have served as a Second District CASA for more than seven years. 
CASA is an unbiased, unpaid, statewide volunteer organization that provides a voice for abused and neglected children. The concept started in Seattle in 1977 as an experiment in getting the community involved in speaking for children. The organization became the eyes and ears of the court. Oklahoma County CASA is celebrating 25 years of serving children in Department of Human Services (DHS) custody, with 200 volunteers serving 700 children in 300 cases. Unfortunately, CASA only serves 24 percent of children in custody. CASAs do not replace caseworkers, but the number of caseworkers is in decline while the number of children in custody climbs, and the system cannot provide for all their needs. A CASA concentrates on one child or sibling group. Volunteers explore community resources and make recommendations to the judge. CASA’s story is best told through 
the words of those who work to save one child at a time.

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Carolyn VanBebber, a six-year volunteer veteran of CASA, previously worked to promote the arts in private and parochial schools. She acted in the capacity of executive director of  PPARTS (Private and Parochial Arts for Students) and as a director of special projects in private schools. Now a grandmother of six grandchildren, including two from the foster care system, she sees both sides of the equation. She explained that she holds no degree in social work, but received an appointment from a judge to provide a clearer picture of a child in custody. “Each volunteer brings something unique to the table. All come with a desire to make a difference. We research records, talk to the parties involved, field the child’s wishes and bring that innate gut feeling … I guess I’ll call it life experiences … to offer recommendations to the presiding judge.”

When asked what drew her to CASA, she said quietly, “I spent my adult life involved in my children’s activities. When they left home I found myself a traditional empty nester. One day at church I looked at the children I taught and thought, ‘Not one of them needs me personally.’ I had a spiritual crisis and felt my activities didn’t fulfill that need. I felt God leading me someplace else. I joined Calm Waters, a counseling group for children suffering from grief and divorce. Eventually I came to CASA and found what I was looking for.”


I am there for my children when nobody else is present.”
Carolyn Van Bebber


Carolyn related her training for CASA. “Before our swearing in we receive 40 hours of in-service training. We fill out applications, receive background checks and produce references; we learn what to look for. My training covered domestic violence, recognizing abuse, laws, report writing and much more. There’s so much conflicting information involved. I’ve had judges tell me they read my reports first to get a true picture. I ask lots of questions. If you’re not a gifted writer, you can present a good report. Our advocate supervisors help in that respect.

“I am there for my children when nobody else is present. Generally I serve on a case longer than anybody. The literature asks for a year, but I stay until my child reunites with family, is adopted or ages out. One of my children went out of state. I’m still his CASA, and in contact, even if the other state’s not excited.” She laughed. “Not everybody understands or appreciates what I do. Somebody accused me of being a bored Junior Leaguer with unrealistic expectations about a case. I’ve been trained to look beyond a messy house and poverty to what’s best for these children. Parents deserve a second chance to make things right. Eventually I may make a decision that’s unpopular, but I’m advocating for what’s best for these kids, what they want.

Asked why she continues the work, she thought briefly and said, “My compulsion. A 13-year-old CASA child confined to a juvenile psychiatric center had nobody come to see him. He’s allowed visitors once a week. I come, bring cookies, and I’m the only one that comes. There’s sometimes an emotional price to pay, but that’s why I continue.”

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Loren James

Loren James, a six-year volunteer, acknowledged the fact that counseling for abused and neglected children is sadly lacking, and being in CASA encouraged him to return to school to complete his master’s degree in counseling. Besides his job as a medical equipment rep, his two children, his church activities and his classwork at the University of Central Oklahoma, he still finds time for CASA. When asked how he found his way into the CASA program, he smiled. “It was a natural progression. I worked for the Areawide Agency on Aging, Eldercare, and [as] a city planner and grant writer. I moved to Big Brothers and [Big] Sisters as a volunteer and fundraiser. It was incompatible with a family of small children. I found a brochure at church, called, trained and received my first case. I discovered a group of people speaking directly to the children. In many cases, nobody spoke for their needs or wishes.”

Although CASAs need no specialized degrees and training is provided when starting the program, Loren is working toward a master’s degree. “My education follows my bachelor’s in social work, and now I can I mix my two passions, but still make a living. The volunteers bring a wide range of experience. Compassion, desire and a level of common sense are what a CASA needs most.”

“The community is ill-equipped to deal with the epidemic of deprived and neglected children. Some parents have lost passion or never developed the skills to be good parents. They lack the abilities to make a living, care for their children or themselves. Many turn to domestic violence, addiction and neglect. When it involves removal, children blame themselves. Many times these children internalize the responsibility for the family separation. What a hard thing for a child to take on.”

Loren explained how CASA helps with broken families. “This is a great opportunity to provide information and resources somebody might never receive. I’m a great cheerleader for parents and children getting the help they need. My first hope is for reunification, but my ultimate goal is what’s in the best interest of the child, and the rest of their life.”


I hope people will take the risk of the sadness, because it’s outweighed by the rewards returned.”
Loren James


When asked about his most important role as a CASA, he responded that he never makes promises to any child that he won’t be moved. “I promise I’ll follow him to the next place and always be there. He’s not alone.” He told the story of a child brought before the judge each month for review. “Someone different picked him up each time from school. One day he told me he felt guilty because he always went to court. I picked him up and went to court. We then stopped by the park or got ice cream. I explained to him the judge wanted to see how well he’s doing. He now views the judge as one more person on his side.”

Loren expressed his frustrations in dealing with a large system. “DHS is overburdened, and we conflict at times. I will fight to not have my CASA kids labeled and fit into categories. You can’t do that with children. 

“There was a time in my life when I could have benefited by a CASA intervention, having anybody speak for me. I found the smallest kindnesses went a long way, inspiring me for years afterward. I hope people will take the risk of the sadness, because it’s outweighed by the rewards returned.”

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Laura Pfeiffer

With only two years of experience in CASA, Laura Pfeiffer has already proven herself. This mother of two teen children won the 2013 Buddy Faye Foster Award for advocacy and leadership in the courtroom. Her advocate supervisor, Cheryl Thornton, says, “She’s an amazing person and even more amazing CASA. Her case involved a troubled youngster DHS wanted to drop. Laura fought for that child and convinced the judge, DA and DHS to keep her because it was in the best interest of the child.” 

When asked about the talents she brings to the CASA table, Laura laughed. “I’m a VP for internal controls in a large bank. I investigate problems and dig until I find answers. CASA and I equal a good match in that respect.”

The banker holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in accounting. When asked why she chose to volunteer for CASA with such a busy life, she grinned. “I heard it on ‘Dr. Phil.’ Our children came later in our marriage. We started classes for foster care when I discovered I was pregnant and we decided to revisit the idea later. We watched ‘Dr. Phil’ one day, and he talked about the CASA program. We thought that would fill the bill.” Both spouses became CASA volunteers. 


“CASA is a valuable asset and presents a child’s perspective.”
Sheree Powell, DHS State Director of Communications


“CASA fulfilled my expectations. It’s a tough way to volunteer, sometimes stressful and time-consuming. What I do with CASA always remains challenging. I find myself being creative, figuring ways to accomplish goals for my CASA children. People care, and the basics are provided, but if I have the opportunity to help them learn more – manners, social skills or moral values – I try to instill those things. I know the value of ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ looking somebody in the eye when speaking, the right silverware to use and holding the door open for others. I believe knowing and doing these things build their self-esteem. I hoped to spread some of the blessings my family had been given. I didn’t realize that I received more than I gave.”

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is an agency in transition. The Pinnacle program is in process, and more children are coming into state custody now than five years ago. Sheree Powell, state director of communications, summed up DHS’ relationship with CASA. “CASA is a valuable asset and presents a child’s perspective. CASA volunteers can spend more time on the child’s point of view, where the caseworker must consider siblings, parents and regulations while serving the child’s needs. We know in this capacity there is not always agreement on a case, but this is a healthy interchange. We all agree the child’s interest is our focus. DHS depends on the volunteer’s experience with the child, which is often longer in tenure than the caseworker. The CASA volunteer helps to ensure their child receives the full range of services, as determined by DHS and CASA. They bring the child’s interest to a case. That helps a caseworker in the long term. If there were more CASA volunteers, the children we serve would be much better off."


“As a group of highly committed volunteers,
they shore up a system with inherent problems.”

Judge Roger Stuart


Perhaps the most reliable reflection of the Court Appointed Special Advocate program comes from the judges relying on Oklahoma County juvenile court. Before Governor Mary Fallin appointed Judge Roger Stuart as a special judge in district court he sat on the juvenile docket.Judge Stuart says, “When I sat on the juvenile docket I relied heavily on CASA. As a group of highly committed volunteers, they shore up a system with inherent problems. I believe judges rely heavily on the individualized information the CASA volunteer brings. A judge tries to make the best decision for the child, and CASA provides specific knowledge. It’s profound common sense, when somebody knows the child on an individual basis: this is what we on the bench need. 

The child welfare system is not designed for individual needs, but on grouping children’s needs. CASA provides consistency as a rule that DHS or counselors cannot. They are the last person standing, and historian for those coming later. I was strongly impressed with CASA two months after coming to the juvenile docket. The court system is isolated, and CASA brings a sense of community to the court. The more the community knows what happens in court is better for the child’s future potential. Children come into the system feeling unwanted and at fault. Surrounding them with caring people improves their intrinsic value. Mother Teresa said, ‘Poverty in America is feeling unwanted.’ I think she hit the nail on the head in this situation.”  

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From Weathergirl to Casa Advocate Supervisor


Lola Hall

Do You Remember Channel 9’s Weathergirl, Lola Hall?

This Oklahoma broadcasting pioneer became the first woman to appear on TV news in the Southwest. An Oklahoma City icon, she worked for Channel 4 (then WKY), KOMA and KOTK radio, and later became a member of the Oklahoma Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Lola Hall Gadd has now clocked 16 years as a CASA advocate supervisor.

“I worked for Mercy Hospital when Fran Morris recommended I go to work for CASA.” Fran, another TV pioneer, hosted “Miss Fran from Storyland.” Lola now supervises 30 CASA volunteers and acts as the liaison between volunteers, DHS and district attorneys. Her enthusiasm for the program is palpable. “The only consistency in a case, many times, is CASA. Besides, they are the only one in the room not paid to be there.”

During this interview, she told of her respect for people volunteering for the organization. “There is no tougher volunteer program, considering the time and work needed.” 

When asked what epitomizes a good CASA, she replied, “My volunteers are remarkable with a single-minded focus. Volunteers take their case apart, look for answers and present an informed opinion to the judge. The recommendations presented are based on research and investigation. I have doctors, lawyers, retired clerks, housewives, even college students. The common theme running through all this is they all believe they can make a difference in one child’s life.”