Volunteers sworn in

Thirteen Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, are sworn in by District Judge Mary Jane Knisely at the Yellowstone County Courthouse on Monday afternoon.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

In John's box of precious things, the former foster child keeps a tattered business card of his CASA. 

Before swearing in 13 new court appointed special advocates, Yellowstone County CASA Executive Director Cass Staton told the group about John, a child who had bounced between foster homes before being adopted. His CASA volunteer was his only constant.

This was the role the new volunteers had agreed to fill for children in the Yellowstone County foster system, Staton said.

Among the volunteers sworn in Monday was Yellowstone County Justice Court of Record ticket and DUI clerk Angela Penninger. Even before she worked at the county courthouse, Penninger had heard of CASA. Penninger has an adopted son who she said had siblings who got lost in the foster care system. 

"Just knowing there are so many kids out there that can use this help," Penninger said, "I'm really excited. It'll be a wonderful experience for me, and hopefully for the child."

More than 600 children in Yellowstone County are in foster care, and with about 100 CASA volunteers, they are able to serve about 200 of those kids, Staton said. 

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely said if people are thinking of becoming CASA volunteers to, "Do it."

"I can understand being hesitant," Knisely said. "But if you're considering it, know you get comprehensive training and a more veteran CASA will mentor you. I've never heard of someone being sorry they did CASA."

The Yellowstone County CASA program is pushing for an increase in American Indian CASAs, Staton said. AmeriCorps VISTA Shannen Keene and Indian Child Welfare Program Coordinator Nicole Walksalong are two new CASA team members helping with this effort.

American Indian children make up 40 percent of Yellowstone County's foster care children, while the Native American population in Yellowstone County was only 4.6 percent in July 2015, Keene said. Keene was hired to try to help bridge this gap. She has reached out to Little Big Horn College and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council in an effort to learn more about the Native cultures in the area, as well as spread the word about the need for more Native American CASA volunteers.

People interested in becoming a CASA volunteer are encouraged to attend a one-hour informational session to learn about the program, Staton said. The next session will be at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 3 at the CASA office, 1201 Grand Ave. Suite 5. For more information, people can visit the Yellowstone CASA website

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Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.