CASA finds a home, grows services
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Keri Kahn, communications manager for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children of the Pikes Peak Region, poses for a portrait at their office in Downtown Colorado Springs on Thursday December 21, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

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Far too often, children's court-ordered, supervised visits with a parent came only behind a metal detector, down a cold, gray hallway and inside a sterile-looking room in the El Paso County Courthouse.

But that's a thing of the past.

Tucked inside a low brick building several blocks away is a welcoming living room for these families, complete with soft, comfy sofas and toys galore. There's a nursery for infants, a playroom for toddlers and a venue for teenagers to play Nintendo Wii video games with their parents.

"It gives it more of a natural setting," said Crystal Karr, who oversees those visits. "The kids really focus more on the parents."

It's all part of a seismic move for CASA of the Pikes Peak Region, which recently consolidated its programs and services into one newly purchased building at 418 S. Weber St.

The move aims to increase its capacity to train volunteers as court-appointed advocates for children facing abuse or neglect or caught between severe domestic conflicts. CASA helps 629 such children, but about 270 more need advocates, CASA spokeswoman Keri Kahn said.

The move also aims to lend stability to CASA's other, lesser-known programs and give them an opportunity to grow.

"We strive to serve the whole child," Kahn said.

CASA - short for Court Appointed Special Advocates - began in 1989 to ensure that the interests of children whose parents are accused of abuse or neglect are represented during judicial proceedings.

Its volunteers attend court hearings, make follow-up calls to lawyers and social workers and visit parents and each child's school. Those volunteers, acting as guardians ad litem, then report their findings back to the judges overseeing each child's case.

Five years ago, CASA helped 47 percent of children needing an advocate. That figure has grown to 70 percent, and the goal is to supply an advocate to every child in need by 2020.

To do so, the nonprofit needs to recruit about 300 more advocates, Kahn said.

"As the population grows, the number of children in need will grow," Kahn said.

Before the move to its new digs, CASA operations were spread across several downtown locations.

One office housed its staff and volunteers' supervisors. Another held a clothing store for children in foster care. Court-ordered parental visits took place at the courthouse. And volunteers were trained in rented conference rooms, costing money and limiting capacity to train advocates.

Now everything is under one roof.

The nonprofit paid $1.2 million for the facility, according to the county Assessor's Office. It plans to embark on a capital campaign in 2018 to help pay for it.

The new building - which formerly housed The Resource Exchange - has a spacious conference room for those training sessions. As a result, the nonprofit is seeking to boost its volunteer base.

Its basement has space for those parental meetings through its Supervised Exchange and Parenting Time program, allowing it to host up to five families at a time rather than three.

CASA needs at least 60 more volunteers to fully staff the center - ensuring one volunteer per family per visit.

It's time remarkably well spent, Karr said.

"You get to witness these families rebuilding themselves," she said.

On the main floor is space for the Life Long Links program, which helps foster children find long-lost relatives through genealogy and social media sleuthing.

Around the corner is The Hangar - a store managed by the Milton Foster Children's Fund that offers new or gently used clothing, shoes and accessories to teens and young adults in foster care. From 1 to 4 p.m. most Saturdays, they can get five items for free.

The Hangar began in 2013 when a foster teen refused to attend high school because she only had one pair of jeans and one T-shirt, said Jane Hegstrom, a CASA volunteer for 17 years.

CASA supplied the girl with gift cards to Wal-Mart, then sought to keep other teens from the same situation.

The store bears a striking resemblance to nearby downtown boutiques. It recently boasted leather boots, Mary Kay facial creams, fashionable jeans and tops and jackets retailing for $94 to $158 (with the tags still attached).

"It's astounding what the community brings to us," Hegstrom said.

None of this is new to CASA. But seeing it all under one roof lends a new perspective, said Karen Hilborn, an advocate for 25 years.

"It just brings the whole picture together," Hilborn said.

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