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Dodge County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program is looking to expand — out of the Dodge County Attorney’s office, and into its own space.

The program, which trains volunteers to be mentors and advocates for abused and neglected children in the courtroom, has historically operated under the jurisdiction of the Dodge County attorney, subject to the county’s budget and working from the attorney’s office on the third floor of the Dodge County Courthouse.

But the group announced on Friday that it’s becoming a separate, independent non-profit, moving its operation to its own office on the fourth floor of the courthouse.

The move comes with a name change and aspirations to grow: formerly the CASA project of Dodge County, the new entity will be called CASA of the Midlands, and ultimately aims to expand its coverage area.

“Our plan is to expand into Saunders and Washington counties once we get kind of our feet on the ground, hopefully in the next year or so,” said Meggie Studt, the interim executive director of CASA of the Midlands. “That’s why we didn’t want to specify it to just Dodge County anymore. Because they don’t have programs in those counties, in Saunders or Washington.”

Dodge County, the biggest out of all three of these counties, will still be the headquarters for the group. There are between 50 and 100 children in foster care in Dodge County, Studt said, and fewer than five or so regular CASA volunteers.

“We’re trying to grow it to serve more children,” Studt said. “We’re trying to get more volunteers to serve all of the children that are in care.”

Studt said recruitment efforts “will be going strong this next year.”

Meanwhile, becoming a 501©(3) non-profit will increase the agency’s ability to apply for grants.

“Right now, we’re currently under the county and it kind of limits us on what we can apply for funding,” Studt said. “Once we can hire an executive director and that will be their full-time job, they’ll have 100 percent time devoted to focusing on just that, whereas right now, we have people that are doing other job duties.”

The group has been having steering committee meetings and is in the process of creating a board. When the board is finalized, they will look to hire an executive director, which Studt says she hopes will happen in the next three to six months. In the meantime, they are still training volunteers and still operating in the county attorney’s office.

Inside the courthouse, there will be some shifting. CASA of the Midlands will ultimately take over an office on the fourth floor that’s currently occupied by Dodge County’s new Emergency Manager Thomas Smith.

Smith, who has no additional staff members in his office, will be moving to a space in the basement that had previously been designed as an emergency response room, and is also one of the county’s designated fallout shelters, said Dodge County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Missel. That space is being renovated to support Smith’s operations.

In the interim, CASA of the Midlands is hosting a “Giving Tree” donation drive. Outside its current home at the County Attorney’s office on the third floor of the courthouse, the group has placed a “giving tree,” decorated with ornaments that represent a Dodge County child currently in foster care, along with a wish list of what they’d like for Christmas.

Those interested in donating a gift can pick an ornament from the tree. Gifts can be returned to the Dodge County Attorney’s office, wrapped or unwrapped, with the ornament attached by Dec. 18, 2018. For more information, contact Studt at (402) 727-2725 or dcastudt@dcaoffice.us.

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