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When Amanda Neff met CASA volunteer Connie Riddell, she assumed Riddell only wanted to hear the same story about her past.
Neff was 15. A ward of the state. She had lived in a group home in Indiana, was living in a Frankfort group home with 14 other girls. Neff and her brother were in the middle of an extended custody battle.
She repeated the same narrative to the social worker. The attorney. The judge. The probation officer assigned to her case after Neff got physical with her stepmother while living with her father in Indiana.
“Kind of thought it was a joke,” Neff said about when she first heard about CASA and met Riddell. “You have to understand that when you go through the system, you’re over interviewed; you’re telling your story over and over again.
“It’s just another person to tell your story to, another person with their hand in the cookie jar, I guess.”
Riddell had one question for Neff, a question no one asked before.
“After I told my story to her, she had said, ‘I know where you’ve been. Where are you going?’” Neff recalled.
And that question made all the difference. Riddell believed in Neff.
“For right or wrong, she had my back,” Neff said of Riddell.
CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are appointed by judges to be voices for neglected or abused children in court, according to the Franklin and Anderson County CASA’s website.
Because Neff moved back and forth between Indiana and Kentucky during her adolescence, she was assigned two CASA volunteers — Riddell with the Frankfort office and Susan Jordan in Indiana.
Both women gave Neff a sense of stability and a normal life, she said.
Riddell went with Neff on her first date with the boy who would later become Neff’s husband.
Jordan was by Neff’s side when she gave birth to her first child, though Neff had already turned 18 and aged out of the CASA program.
Both CASA volunteers helped Neff get back on her feet when her mother relapsed and her husband went to prison.
“I feel like because of CASA, my kids have a better mother,” Neff said. “Without [Riddell], I’m a bazillion times sure I would have been an addict and not a good mother. CASA plays an important part in my home.”
So when Neff read a newspaper column asking for CASA volunteers in the Frankfort State-Journal in 2009, she knew she wanted to give back.
Becoming a CASA volunteer, she said, involved background checks and six to seven weeks of training for about 12 hours a week. Three days after completing training Neff picked her first case, one that mirrored her own troubled experience as a teen.
“For me, teenagers are important because we have a shorter amount of time to get their lives together before they’re out on their own,” Neff, a 27-year-old working mom of four, said. “It’s a sense of urgency; they have a special place in my heart.”
CASA is as much as someone puts into it, she said. Some volunteers visit children once a month; others interact with them every two weeks. Neff works full-time and sometimes juggles two or three cases, depending on what point in the court process the child is in. She currently sits on the board of advisers and says she’ll be assisting with training soon.
Neff said the No. 1 goal for herself and for CASA is reunification for children and their families. Sometimes the end result isn’t the one Neff wants, she said, and that can be frustrating.
“There is a lot on your shoulders — a child’s future,” Neff, who has worked four cases since 2009, said. “I take it very seriously because this is the rest of their lives. Their lives have been shaken up enough, we want to balance it out as much as possible.”
Neff said she missed out on many things as a teenager: Prom, high school graduation, a normal home life.
Everything she’s been through, she said, groomed and prepared her for what she now considers to be her calling with CASA.
“If I could be there for one child, then all these years and everything I’ve done will be worth it,” Neff said. “Just one.”
For more information about CASA, visit the Franklin/Anderson County website at www.franklin-andersoncountycasa.org.