Dan Hust | Democrat
New Sullivan County CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) Program Director Deborah Miknis was introduced to dozens of local officials and residents during a recent reception at the Government Center in Monticello, where CASA’s office is located.
'We need advocates'
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO August 2, 2013 Moving from Georgia to Yankee Lake with no job lined up wasn’t as large a leap of faith for Deborah Miknis as you might think.
“I just had this feeling that when I got here, something wonderful was going to happen,” Miknis affirmed. “I just knew it would be a good thing.”
Within a week of returning to what had long been her family’s summer home, Miknis found that “good thing.”
Sullivan County CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) was looking for a new director, and she had served as a CASA program director in Georgia.
In fact, that’s what had spurred the move to Georgia from her Vermont law practice in 2008.
“I enjoyed helping people more than I enjoyed anything else,” she acknowledged.
While in Georgia, Miknis also started a non-profit to aid victims of domestic abuse.
“But I really wanted to come back to my roots in New York,” the Middletown native recalled.
So after more than 25 years in Vermont and four years down South, Miknis returned home and interviewed for the CASA directorship, being selected over 45 other candidates specifically because of her experience.
“I knew how to train volunteers,” she explained, “and there was a need to get volunteers up and running right away.”
Indeed, the Sullivan County CASA program had maintained just three volunteers while it searched for a new leader.
To properly advocate for the hundreds of children who go through Sullivan County Family Court proceedings every year, Miknis estimates at least 30 volunteers are needed.
She just finished training 16, hoping to double that with another training session four months from now.
The only paid staffer, Miknis is just part-time in the role, yet her passion and enthusiasm rival the hardest-working full-timers.
“We’re going to do training three times a year to build up the volunteer base,” she vowed. “We want to work towards 100 percent representation [of every child in Family Court].”
“We’re very lucky to have someone with such energy,” affirmed CASA Board Chair Shelly Field. “She’s going to do good for CASA.”
“She’s got plenty of energy, and I think she’ll infuse some energy into the program,” agreed Family Court Judge Mark Meddaugh, who with Judge Michael McGuire handles 4,600 Family Court cases per year.
Meddaugh, who participated in the recent volunteer training, was struck by Miknis’ cheerleading attitude, which he indicated is needed now more than ever.
“I think it’s a very important program [that] has taken on an increased significance due to cutbacks in government programs,” the judge related.
Not that CASA has been immune to funding issues indeed, Miknis is part-time because the non-profit currently can’t afford a full-time leader.
So volunteer Larry Schafman, who served as interim director prior to Miknis’ arrival, is spearheading an effort to solicit grants and community donations.
“They’re a marvelous group of dedicated people,” Miknis said of the volunteers and board members.
They share CASA’s mission to independently advocate for each and every child in the Family Court system.
“You only work on one child at a time,” she said, referring to the pairing of children and CASA volunteers. “Our goal is to give the judge all the facts that judge needs to come up with an order that’s in the best interests of the child.”
It’s a role only CASA can fulfill. Attorneys represent their clients’ wishes (often adults). Government agencies are limited by policy and funding. And judges can only go on what they hear in the courtroom.
But CASA volunteers can focus exclusively on the needs of the abused and neglected children, then advocate for those needs to be met.
Though she’s never had children of her own, Miknis so strongly believes in CASA’s mission that she’s gotten her husband, Donald, to take the training. Once past the required background check, he’s due to be inaugurated with the other 15 CASA volunteers.
“The volunteers change lives. They save lives,” she affirmed. “You can make a difference!”
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To become a volunteer, to donate much-needed funds, or simply for more information, Miknis welcomes calls at 807-0672 or emails at email@example.com.
CASA’s website is at www.sullivancountycasa.org, and its mailing address is 100 North Street, Monticello, NY 12701.