Anthony Tobias Fagiano of Bozeman appears before Judge Holly Brown on April 26, 2016 (MTN News photo)

GREAT FALLS – Ten years ago, Joan Tierney started volunteering with the Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA.

She said her role of guardian is important for youth in need of care cases.

“Our role is to make sure they’re as quickly as possible put into a safe environment,” she said. “Whether it be with kinship or with foster families or back with mom and dad. Our goal is to get them back with mom and dad.”

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But over the last decade, an increase in cases makes it hard to represent every child in abuse or neglect cases within Cascade County.

“It is very disconcerting because of the fact that I have seen the impact that I have made on the children I have had and the families I have dealt with,” Tierney said.

CASA-CAN Executive Director Lisa Goff said they had 12 volunteers with the program when she started 13 years ago.

“Last year, we had over 90 volunteers who advocated for children. We served approximately 360 children, which is about half of the children in the system,” Goff said.

She added that about 95 percent of their cases are related to meth although poverty also plays a factor in why cases end up in court.

“Because of the explosion of child abuse cases, we have not been able to serve all the kids like we really want to,” Goff said. “We are certainly in need, the kids are in need of advocates. The judges are looking for advocates.”

8th Judicial District Court Judge Elizabeth Best said volunteers have a unique perspective by learning the truth about what’s happening in the parents’ lives.

“The CASA volunteers often act in an adult parental role in terms of encouraging parents to keep going and to keep doing the right thing,” she said. “I like to hear from them because they are a very objective voice.”

A new law states a CASA representative should be appointed to a case but if that is not possible, an attorney will be appointed.

Though without the advocate, the court loses the objective voice.

“What I would hope is that maybe I can encourage people to want to do this work,” Best said. “I think it can be fulfilling. I know we need a lot more people. Every year our numbers grow and we need help from the community to get this right.”

CASA-CAN’s next training for volunteers starts on February 26.

If you would like to become a volunteer, call 454-6738.

Reporting by Margaret DeMarco for MTN News

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