While working with children as a court appointed special advocate in Douglas County, Georgia Orchard always loved to teach those she worked with how to read.
She found sitting down with children with books such as Richard Scarry’s “Best Picture Dictionary Ever” would help them develop as they got older and felt rewarded as she watched them grow.
“Teaching kids how to read has been my goal forever,” Orchard said. “This little girl I worked with from when she was 5 until she was 10 was just off the wall when she started, but we would sit down with books to look at pictures and learn words and I think she went far because she did learn how to read and understand more.”
But as a court appointed special advocate, or CASA, Orchard did much more than help the children she worked with learn how to read. In her 30 years of volunteering, Orchard worked with around 20 children who experienced abuse and neglect, meeting frequently with them and their parents, foster parents, case workers and other professionals involved with the children’s cases.
Orchard, Douglas County CASA’s longest-serving volunteer advocate, began with the organization when it was formed in 1991. Along with meeting with children involved in court cases for abuse and neglect, Orchard was responsible for attending meetings and court hearings for each case, submitting court reports and advocating for a permanent home for each child.
Before becoming an advocate, Orchard was a school psychologist working with elementary-age children.
“Georgia retired from a position as a school counselor before she started volunteering and she was really good at it,” said Carolyn Johnson, a volunteer coordinator at Douglas County CASA. “We try to remind our volunteers that they’re not professionals, and she never pretended that she was wearing her professional hat, but she did really well at just sitting down with a kid and reading with them and ultimately determining if they needed any professional assessments.”
Orchard enjoyed working with elementary-age children, and worked with them from anytime between 3 months to over a few years old, she said.
But working with their parents to find stable housing was a large and difficult part of her role as a CASA.
“When I first started, it was disappointing trying to help these young parents. I wanted to work with them and give them advice, but sometimes they just can’t handle the children or they’re hard on them,” Orchard said. “The hardest part is to see the children not safe. They need to be cared for and safe, and if they’re frightened all the time they can’t really develop properly.”
Since volunteering with Douglas County CASA in 1991, Orchard has worked with many foster parents in Kansas, some of whom became adoptive parents to the children they fostered. But a lack of advocacy for foster parents can create poor living conditions for the children, she said.
“Advocating for and helping foster parents who may need to advocate for a child to not move around so much could help both the family and the child,” Orchard said. “Some children who are very difficult move around a lot to a lot of different places which has to be hard on them.”
“I know they’re trying harder to place children with kin, often grandparents, and that’s probably a good thing because they’re more committed to keeping the children for a longer period of time and keeping them safe,” she continued.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families touts significant improvements made since 2019 in the Kansas foster care system to aid children in finding more permanent housing, Kansas Reflector has reported. The rate at which children in the Kansas foster care system move from home to another dropped from an average of 9.9 moves per 1,000 days to 5.1 moves and the number of foster kids staying with relatives increased from 30% to 42%.
In addition to those changes, volunteers like Orchard make immense differences in children’s lives, Johnson said.
“I learned a lot from her about consistency in volunteerism. She understood that kids relied on her showing up when she said she would show up and foster parents would rely on her as well,” Johnson said. “I’ve probably supervised over 100 volunteers, and she is my No. 1 most reliable in terms of everything, in terms of seeing the kid consistently, in terms of getting her paperwork to me on time, in terms of writing a great court report. She just never let anybody down.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.