Routt County nonprofit that helps children navigate court system sees increase due to COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For Carrie Helmcamp, COVID-19 meant trading ski trips and library visits for Zoom meetings and phone calls.
Helmcamp, an advocate at Northwest Rocky Mountain Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA, works with one child or family at a time as they navigate the court system. Judges appoint children an advocate when a parent is in the court system and the court deems the child has been the victim of abuse or neglect.
Advocates are tasked with being a voice for the child in court proceedings and at school. Before COVID-19, this partnership also involved outings such as skiing at Howelsen Hill Ski Area, trips to local parks and facilitating in-person meetings between parents and children.
But as the pandemic resulted in stay-at-home orders and other health protocols, CASA saw an increase in children needing assistance. And at the same time, the program transitioned to holding almost all meetings virtually, which CASA Executive Director Alan Hallman said has proven difficult for forming connections between children and their advocates.
“That was a real hurdle because a lot of the kids that we serve look forward to their visits,” Hallman said. “It can be really stressful at times.”
CASA experienced a 66% increase in cases since Routt County announced its first COVID-19 case in March, Hallman said, which he attributed to the added pressures the pandemic creates for families.
“There has been a lot of stress in the world, and I think it does fall on families and on kids,” he said.
CASA advocates host court-approved visitations between children and parents, normally in the nonprofit’s office, which has rooms set up to be comforting for children in a situation that can often feel intimidating, Hallman said.
“What we’ve really stressed is to have a place where the child feels comfortable,” Hallman said. “It helps them relax in an already difficult time.”
Transitioning from a child-centered room specifically designed for comfort to virtual meetings is not ideal, but Hallman said most children have adapted remarkably well
“They’re just so good with digital things,” he said.
Helmcamp said the lack of in-person interaction between advocates and children has made creating a personal bond more difficult, which she said is a vital part of helping a child through the court system.
“You find out what’s going on in their lives when you’re spending time with them and being their friend,” Helmcamp said. “You really just want to get a good feel for how the child is going through this really tough time in their life.”
Though Helmcamp is not currently assigned to a child, she was working with a family with two children, ages 8 and 11, when COVID-19 cases started in the spring, and she said the changes brought about by the pandemic were a shock for children.
“Obviously, you really don’t get the same feel and the same connection that you get when you’re out there on the mountain or walking through the park,” she said. “That’s when kids start to really open up to you, but I think we’re doing the best we can.”
In addition to taking children on outings and getting to know them, CASA volunteers communicate with a child’s teachers, therapists and other adults in their life, as well as represent the child’s interests in court proceedings.
“They often don’t have a lot of good adult role models,” Helmcamp said. “That’s where we come in.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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