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Wanted: People who care about children

Jerry Breen, a retired social worker, and Heidi Roettger, a mother of five, are spearheading an effort to form a local chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASA. The organization uses volunteers to work with and speak for abused and neglected children. <i>Judy Wiff photo</i>

A retired social worker and a stay-at-home mom are hoping to bring to western Wisconsin a program that uses everyday citizens to advocate for abused and neglected children.

Jerry Breen, River Falls, and Heidi Roettger, Beldenville, have met with civic organizations to recruit steering committee members to begin forming a local branch of CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates.

CASA, started in 1977 by Seattle Judge David Soukup, now has a network of over 946 programs recruiting, training and supporting volunteers in 49 states, according to its website.

The website says Soukup, a juvenile court judge, was concerned that he was making important decisions about children's lives with insufficient information.

Soukup "conceived the idea of citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom."

The Wisconsin CASA Association now has seven programs, serving 10 counties, all in the southern half of the state.

"I have no background in child protective services," admitted Roettger whose degree is in business. With five children, ages 4-14, she's been a stay-at-home mom for 15 years.

Breen worked as a social worker in the area of children protection before retiring in 2008. During his career, he worked in Pierce and St. Croix counties in Wisconsin and Ramsey, Hennepin and Washington counties in Minnesota.

Both became interested in CASA after joining Pierce County's Citizen Review Panel, a group that meets to evaluate local child protection services and go over cases of child fatalities and near fatalities.

"I was tired of getting upset about (child abuse) and not doing anything about it," said Roettger of her involvement.

When she learned about a CASA conference in Madison through Pierce County Judge Joe Boles, she went.

"I thought it was a great program," said Roettger.

After screening and training, CASA volunteers, who are supervised by professionals, are assigned by the court to an individual child or sibling group.

Each volunteer meets weekly with the child to make observations about his or her safety and wellbeing, communicate the child's wishes to the court and make recommendations.

The volunteers are also empowered to talk with the child's parents, extended family, foster family, teachers and counselors to monitor educational progress and social development. The information is compiled in monthly summaries for the court.

Wisconsin law describes the qualifications, authority and access to information of CASA volunteers and prescribes the selection process, training, supervision and evaluation.

Volunteers are recruited and supervised by professional CASA staff and must complete 30 hours of training from the national curriculum before they can begin service.

"What struck me most was when I was able to listen to a panel of foster-care children speak about their experiences," said Roettger of her conviction that CASA can make a difference.

She said the thing that meant the most to those former foster-care kids was having "a concerned person who was available to them."

While that person could have been a social worker or a teacher, it could also be a CASA volunteer, she said.

"I had these big ideas that I was going to get this program going (locally) within a year," said Roettger. But it hasn't been that easy.

She and Breen said Boles is very supportive of their efforts. They have also met with St. Croix County judges about the possibility of extending CASA services to that county.

At this point, Roettger and Breen are focusing their efforts on recruiting members for a steering committee.

That group would develop a plan for approval by the national organization, prepare the paperwork needed to incorporate as a non-profit and find a director to raise funds and recruit and train volunteers.

Steering committee members could include a lawyer, a courts representative, a child protection worker, a local government official, an educator, members of organizations that work with foster kids and a community member.

Breen and Roettger have been meeting with area civic organizations about CASA. They will hold a meeting open to the public from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, in the Board Room of the River Falls Public Library.

Persons interested in CASA are invited to call Roettger at 715-426-0904.

For more information about the national organization, visit its website,

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

(715) 426-1049