Malheur CASA scrambles for volunteers to speak for kids

A foster child sports favorite purple boots at a party held recently for children in the system. (Malheur Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Bettye Ramirez is a feisty grandmother who keeps a close eye on foster children in Malheur County.

She’d like some help.

Ramirez runs the local program that gives children an adult whose task is to be sure the system works for them.

This is Malheur County CASA, which relies on volunteers to serve as court-appointed special advocates.

These specially-trained adults have significant legal authority to run interference for the child to make sure he or she doesn’t get lost in a complex, cumbersome system.

The volunteers have access to anyone who knows the child – parents, siblings, teachers, counselors and more.

They watch out for unmet needs or when someone doesn’t do what they are supposed to do. The volunteers can ensure court orders are obeyed.

“We go by facts, by observation, the truth,” said Ramirez. “We’re the voice of the child.”

Ramirez has been helping children for more than 40 years, first in Nevada and now in Oregon. She makes sure judges know what a child wants.

“I tell them I can ask for anything – except a trip to Disneyland.”

One girl had a simple request: a pair of pink tennis shoes.

She got them.

Ramirez said she works with parents to do what’s necessary to get their children home. She said she is blunt, dealing most often with mothers, in pushing them to follow through with drug treatment, education, mental health care.

“I tell them, ‘Put on your big girl panties,’ “ Ramirez said. “This all falls on the parent.”

But nearly nine out of 10 foster children in Malheur County don’t have the help of someone like Ramirez.

“That’s a disgrace to our children,” Ramirez recently said at a community meeting.

She said she currently have seven volunteers. She could use 20 more.

Ramirez said her program has no men among its volunteers. The need for Hispanics is profound as well. She said she goes anywhere anytime to speak about the needs and to recruit advocates.

Volunteers put in a few hours a month but commit to the program for two years.

Ramirez, of Ontario, is a tireless recruiter for the program. She speaks at community gatherings, goes to businesses, and anyplace else she thinks she can find a volunteer.

She said the role of child advocate is rewarding. As important, it helps children through a highly stressful time. Without that help, she said, children can face troubles that follow them into adulthood. The result, she said, can be a repetition over generation.

“We can change that,” Ramirez said. “If we don’t help them now, what’s our future going to look like?” she asks.

Want to help?

Email [email protected] or call Bettye Ramirez at 541-709-8134