Camie Wereley: Compassionate advocate

IN PERSON

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Camie Wereley: Compassionate advocate

Camie Wereley has spent nearly two decades serving North Idaho’s most vulnerable community members: children and adults who have been neglected and abused.

Wereley, of Coeur d’Alene, began volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate with North Idaho’s CASA program in 1997. CASA’s volunteer advocates are entrusted by the courts to look out for the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse.

Like other volunteer CASA advocates, Wereley has dedicated countless hours to overseeing the cases of children whose needs can often become lost in the judicial dance between attorneys for moms and dads facing the loss of their parental rights, law enforcement and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Since she began her volunteer work with CASA, Wereley has advocated on more than 40 cases.

Not long after beginning her service with CASA, Wereley began donating her time at what was then named the Women’s Center, the Coeur d’Alene shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Now named Safe Passage, and known for several years as the North Idaho Violence Prevention Center, the nonprofit operates as a community-based provider of services, support and shelter for victims of family violence and sexual assault.

Wereley’s stint as a volunteer at the Women’s Center was brief. She was quickly hired on as a staff member, working in the shelter, spending 16-hour shifts helping the women and children who found refuge there. Wereley worked at the center for 14 years, filling many roles. She ran crisis intervention training classes and eventually became the center’s education and outreach coordinator, working with young people in middle schools, high schools and college from throughout the North Idaho region.

In 2009, Wereley received the Outstanding Service to Victims of Domestic Violence Award, presented by the North Idaho Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Last fall, Wereley again went from volunteer to employee of an organization with a mission she feels passionate about. She was hired as a CASA advocate supervisor, one of two working for the First Judicial District CASA Program serving North Idaho.

What are your responsibilities in your position?

As a supervisor, you are overseeing volunteers...each volunteer carries usually about two cases. So we’re overseeing their investigations and maintenance of those cases as they work their way through the judicial process, with the focus on the child, and that is always our primary focus.

How do you describe the CASA program and how it works?

I always go back to the mission statement, helping abused and neglected children. When a child is removed from their home because they’re considered to be abused or neglected, law enforcement does that, and then the Department of Health and Welfare is called in. They’re responsible for sheltering them. And they conduct an investigation. CASA also conducts a concurrent investigation, with the emphasis solely on the child. It was a judge in Seattle in the ‘70s who realized he was reviewing all these juvenile cases, and he thought, ‘Gosh, I only have such a small amount of time to make these life-altering decisions. These children need an advocate.’ His idea was to get citizen volunteers, train them and have them focus on the child because so often there was no safety net for the child and they would kind of fall between the cracks. So our emphasis is — what’s going on at school? What’s going on medically? We are looking at everything surrounding that child, while often the Department (of Health and Welfare) is focused more on the parents and what’s going on with them, and trying to help them. They’re working on helping the family reunite. Our emphasis is completely on the child and what’s in the child’s best interest. We’re often focusing on the child much more intently than the department has time to do, or is supposed to do, within their guidelines.

I think about this week, and a case we just had where the department was recommending one thing, and CASA was recommending another, and we prevailed. It makes you feel so good when you’re successful in advocating for what you believe is in the child’s best interest. It makes you feel like a rock star.

How do you feel about the volunteers you oversee?

We have so many amazing volunteers who dedicate hours and hours of their time. Investigations take so much time, and there is such a small window, maybe two-and-a-half

weeks, and you need to gather all of this information, write this long report that takes hours to write, and that they’re willing to do that is really neat. I have a tremendous respect for all of them.

In your opinion, what is an important personal quality for a CASA volunteer to strive to maintain?

I think that being objective is a very important quality. When you initially get your case and read through the police report, your immediate reaction may be ‘Oh my gosh, these parents are terrible people,’ but as you do your investigation, so often you end up finding out these parents come from really difficult backgrounds. Even though you may think — what you did was not OK — you have empathy and compassion, especially for the ones that really want to do better, and if they’re given the tools and the assistance. I’ve been amazed at what some of these parents are willing to do. I tell this to my volunteers all the time, who come in and say, ‘I think this.’ I’ll tell them to wait until the investigation is over because you may end up changing your mind. You want to gather all of the facts, and that’s important not only for you, but obviously for the judge.

So you’ve seen parents turn things around?

Yes, I have. When you’re in this line of work, there is so much bad that happens, so much that makes you sad. When you see parents turn it around and really, truly want to make their families whole again in a healthy way, it gives you hope.

Have you had contact with any of the former children you’ve advocated for, after their cases are closed?

As a CASA, you always have to have a professionalism. After the case closes, if they want contact, then, as a CASA, you’re certainly allowed to have that contact. I’ve always let them kind of decide how much contact they wanted. Sometimes it’s been months, or even a year, between the times they contact me, but I’ll get a text or a Facebook message. Sometimes they just want to call me and tell me what they’ve been doing. Maybe they’re upset and want to vent. Maybe they’re really proud and want to tell me about an accomplishment.

What are some of the challenges?

If you’re a CASA, it’s because you’re passionate about helping children. When you’re working through the judicial process, and you’re working with the attorneys who are defending the parents and the department who may have a different idea about what should happen with the family, you really need to forge relationships where you work well with the different agencies and different people that you see all the time. But because of your passion, you can get emotional. That’s where you have to take a deep breath and say, ‘Am I really helping the child by getting emotional? No.’

You began volunteering and then working at the Women’s Center, now named Safe Passage, two years after your son was born, which was also two years after you began your volunteer work as a CASA advocate. You worked with victims of domestic and sexual violence for many years. What drove your passion to do that type of work?

As I began to learn more about domestic violence, I looked back on what I’d experienced growing up, I realized that there were children I went to school with who were in a home where family violence was occurring, and feeling bad that I never recognized it. I also knew some girls in college who were raped, and part of the focus of the agency was on sexual assault, so I volunteered, I wasn’t paid, I volunteered on the rape crisis line almost from the very beginning. I would go the hospital sometimes in the middle of the night. It was a way of kind of coping with the knowledge of what had happened to some of the people in my personal life. I never knew what to say or do. I just felt bad. I saw the lifelong impact it had on them.

This was a way for me to educate myself and help. Once I really knew what I was talking about, I felt like I could go back and talk to them.

How did you manage to stay at the Women’s Center for such a long time, doing this difficult work that often burns people out?

After a while all of the sad stories do begin to take their toll. That’s because when you’re doing crisis interventions, you don’t usually get to see the rest of the story, so you don’t know if everything turned out OK.

I think it helped that I started coordinating all the crisis intervention trainings at the shelter. Then I moved over to the office, and then I got into the teen outreach.

When you get to education and outreach, you think, gosh, I may be stopping something before it ever happens. That’s hopeful. That was absolutely my favorite position. I loved going out and talking to the teens. I went into the middle schools and the high schools and over to the college. I think that especially in this era with them being so glued to social media, many of them come across as being kind of closed off to real life, and then you have these conversations with them, and you find these intelligent, amazing human beings. I really enjoyed getting to know the teens.

Do you think you made a difference?

I was really proud of what I did because when I started, we were probably spending less than 100 hours a year and maybe talking to 100 students. By the time I left, I was spending hundreds of hours and speaking to thousands of students in all five northern counties.

Do you think your work made a positive change in a teen’s life?

I know there was a disclosure of sexual abuse after one of my presentations in a northern county. Then, I would have teachers or students approach me following presentations and I was able to work with some students, and I believe I was able to help them make things better with whatever the particular issue was. Just coming in and having those conversations in the classrooms was something those students appreciated because it’s going on in their lives. Of course, as a teen, you’re so affected by your peers, so being able to talk about dating violence and sexual assault and bullying and the effects and ways to counter people who may be trying to coerce you, or intimidate you or bully you. And just kind of putting it out there, saying this exists, instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, so just having the conversations makes a difference.

— If you know someone you would like to see featured here, please nominate them by email to Maureen Dolan, mdolan@cdapress.com.

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