Sandra Collins is an associate professor of business communication at the University of Notre Dame. But her passion is communicating for abused and neglected children who can’t do it themselves.
“It’s a very gratifying way to volunteer,” Collins said.
She’s a court appointed special advocate, or CASA, in St. Joseph County — a volunteer assigned to hold the hand of some of the hundreds of children in foster care and navigating their way through the system.
“You’re essentially a voice for the child,” Collins said.
She visits with them, talks to their parents, foster parents, teachers, counselors and case workers, and then prepares a report of what she’s found to the judge. It’s a recommendation of sorts for what she thinks is best for the child’s future.
“They obviously cannot speak for themselves and they need someone who can look out for them, who can put their interests first, who doesn't have another agenda operating at a given time and can really speak for what's in their best interest,” she said.
Today there are nearly 1,000 children in St. Joseph County that have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or both, and placed in state care.
St. Joseph County CASA director Brenda Matuszkiewicz says it’s the third-highest number in the state. Only Indianapolis and Gary have more.
Right now, 700 of them are on a CASA waiting list, she said. And other CASA programs across the country are experiencing the same issue.
"It's unfortunate to me that such a national program has such low visibility when the need is so great,” Matuszkiewicz said.
So they’ve launched public service campaigns, an improved Web site with detailed information, and scheduled local training classes for spring, summer and fall.
Other agencies across the country are also trying to attract attention to the need. One organizer in Florida is trying to set up a hike along the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of the national problem.
Collins hopes all of the efforts work.
“None of your time will be wasted,” she said. “It’s all worth it.”