CASA Volunteers

Trisha Miller and Jim Nilson, both of Herrin, explain why they became Williamson County CASA volunteers, responsible for representing children’s best interests in the legal system. Cases often involve children removed from their homes and placed into foster care. Court appointed special advocates observe children and make court recommendations on whether children should return home, a trying for fulfilling job, the volunteers say. CASA is now seeking more volunteers.

MARION — Working with abused or neglected children can take its toll, whether as a paid professional or a volunteer who doesn’t have to do it.

But for nine years, Jim Nilson of Herrin has been compelled to volunteer as a court-appointed special advocate for children in the Williamson County court system.

Same goes for Trisha Miller, also of Herrin, who became a Williamson County CASA volunteer in the fall.

They are among more than 70 volunteers that served 149 children this year. More volunteers are needed as 13 children do not now have advocates.

A teacher for 31 years in the Zeigler-Royalton school district, Nilson has seen too many underprivileged children in his classrooms.

“That’s part of what led me into this,” the now retired Nilson said.

CASA volunteers work with judges, lawyers and social workers as court-appointed officers to determine children’s best interests and report findings in courts.

Often, those cases involve abused or neglected children who have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

Advocates spend time observing children either while in a foster home setting or with their natural parents to report to the court whether they believe those children should be reunited with their parents or remain where they are.

First, after a background check, they go through training for two days a week in a month. Volunteers are also required to undergo an additional 12 hours of training each year and they lean on each other without specifically discussing their cases.

Nannette Patrick, Williamson County’s CASA executive director, praises her volunteers, but she acknowledges the work is not for everyone. Many volunteers have dropped out of the program because of children’s situations.

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“There is a lot of weight to what we recommend,” Patrick said. “It can essentially be life changing.”

Volunteering for CASA is open to all community members regardless of professional or educational backgrounds, she said.

The next training session begins Jan. 25, from 5:50 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesdays for four weeks. A daylong observance of the court system is also part of the training.

Patrick called commitment to the service as a trait volunteers need even in difficult cases. Sometimes, outcomes go against CASA’s recommendations.

Nilson has persevered. He has had four cases involving 15 children while volunteering. Cases have involved drug or alcohol abuse, homelessness or mental illness, for example.

One case lasted five years, the 65-year-old said. Children have ranged in age from newborns – some who never lived with their parents – and up to 17 years old.

“There is more satisfaction than there is disappointment,” said Nilson, a father of two adult children. “It’s all about the children.”

Miller, 58, does not have children of her own, but a family and probate lawyer in private practice, she was drawn to CASA by a public service announcement.

She sees the work as protecting children from an unhealthy environment, she said. Like most jobs, there are good and bad days. She has been struck by the low threshold required of parents in order for their children to return home.

She could have participated in other work, she observed. But she realized that many people might reason that someone else has taken on the responsibility of being a court advocate.

“I told myself, ‘No, I’m going to do this,’” she said.

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