Alaska Expansion Allows CASA Programs to Serve More Native Children

Kym Miller, Kenaitze CASA Coordinator, describes how her dream of bringing CASA volunteer advocacy to Alaska villages is being realized.

Sitting in my office one day I began to daydream and vision CASA spreading to the whole state of Alaska. Programs that would be started in villages I grew up in. Programs that could advocate for children like me, Alaska Native children, children who desperately needed better advocacy and someone who would help them.

My daydream was abruptly interrupted by the sound of the phone ringing in my office, where I am the coordinator of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe CASA program in Kenai, Alaska. On the other end of the phone was Michael Heaton, National CASA western region program officer. We had talked hundreds of times before about the Kenaitze program and so I knew him well.

An invitation from National CASA

Michael began talking about funding that was available, and then he said it: “Would you be interested in coming on board to start more tribal programs in Alaska?” What an answer to prayer—and that he would call me right when I was lost in my vision and dream! I yelled back into the phone, “Yes! yes!” I don’t think Michael expected that reaction, but I was so excited. This meant that children in Alaska were going to receive the advocacy that was due them and they were going to have a chance at better homes more quickly and were not going to be lost in a torn system any longer.

Getting to work: Identifying areas for expansion

Michael and I immediately began working on a proposal and plans to secure the funding from the Office of Victims of Crimes. Over the next several months we researched locations throughout Alaska that needed a CASA program. The selection process was not easy but the formula was simple. We had to look at who had an active tribal court that was hearing dependency cases; how many cases were they hearing in a year; what were the dynamics of the village or community; and was the community large enough to provide an adequate number of volunteers?

From this data we identified three Alaska locations to start a new tribal CASA program—Bethel, Barrow and Ft. Yukon. We also allocated resources and formed partnerships that would allow us to develop a remote CASA office that will serve the south central region of the state.

Learning from our mistakes in Bethel

We started our work in Bethel, a community of Yupik Eskimos on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. The community has about 6,000 people and serves as a hub to 56 other smaller communities and villages. Michael and I flew into Bethel spring of 2009. Our mission was to talk to the local native corporations and people of the community and start gathering information and ideas on what, when, where and how the CASA program would start. Since Bethel was the first place we began investigating, it is also the place we made errors that helped us learn how to do things culturally appropriately, in terms of both strategy and implementation. After several months of gathering information and looking at all of the people who would be involved, we hired our first staff member and started work! In November 2010, the Bethel program—YK Delta CASA—swore in its first class of five volunteers in a ceremony attended by community elders, tribal leaders, the mayor of Bethel and a state representative.

Going north: Ft. Yukon and Barrow

After Bethel, Michael and I began to work on the community of Ft. Yukon. Ft. Yukon is a small community of about 700 people above the Arctic Circle. We approached Ft. Yukon the same way as Bethel, except that Ft. Yukon would have a program that began serving children in tribal court custody, whereas Bethel has a program that will begin serving children in state court custody. The program manager for the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal CASA Program is Arlene Joseph.

A few short weeks after Ft. Yukon, Michael and I headed to Barrow. Barrow is a community of about 5,000 people and is the northern most municipality in the world. Communication had been going on with Barrow for months so it was just a matter of meeting the wonderful people in Barrow and solidify a program. The new program is named Ukteagvik CASA of Barrow.  

Both Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in and Ukteagvik CASAs are in the process of educating and training judges, hiring staff and planning their first trainings for the near future.

A first: Expansion from tribal to state court

In addition to our three new programs, a fourth entity—a remote office within the Anchorage CASA program—is being established at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a nonprofit organization that serves the Native community throughout the south central region of Alaska. We will be recruiting, training and supporting Native advocates to serve Native children. And our Kenaitze program will soon start serving Native children in state court, in addition to the tribal court cases we currently work on. This will mark the first dual-jurisdiction program to expand from tribal to state court.

After lots of travel—by planes, snowmobiles and boats—and many, many meetings among state, government, tribal government, tribal nonprofit government, National CASA and Alaska CASA—the wheels are now well in motion to greatly expand service to Native children in Alaska. Dreams do come true and with continued hard work we expand our vision for Alaska and look forward to a day that the children of Alaska will no longer linger in the foster care system.

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