Nonprofits  June 5, 2024

Harmony House expands headquarters for better services, care

FORT COLLINS — Harmony House is quiet in the morning, but when clients come in after school or work to receive services through CASA of Larimer County, the Fort Collins headquarters can get quite noisy.

“It’s not the best for families — they should have more privacy and better confidentiality for their stories. They deserve more space,” said Jen Ryan, executive director of CASA of Larimer County, 3105 E. Harmony Road. “We feel like it adds to their stress because of the close quarters.”

Construction began in March to add a 2,500-square-foot addition to the south side of Harmony House, a two-story, red brick farmhouse built in 1905 and home of CASA of Larimer County since 1991. The addition, expected to be completed in August, will nearly double the existing 3,000 square feet of space that’s been used for offices, training and visitation rooms. The expansion cost $850,000, supported by a matching grant from the Noel B. Shuler Foundation to improve the comfort, usability and access of the building.

“We’re moving our staff out of the warm, homey spaces so we have more spaces for families to visit,” Ryan said. “It has the kitchen and original bedrooms, which now are all visitation rooms … with toys, games and activities, so parents and kids can spend their time like they would in their own home.”

The addition will have a secured entry, since some of the clients have protection orders in their open dependency and neglect cases in the 18th Judicial District covering Larimer and Jackson counties. CASA serves children from birth to 23 years, going above the legal adult age of 18 to allow them to opt back into their open cases through the Foster Youth In Program Transition Act. 

Colorado has CASA programs in 18 jurisdictions and four jurisdictions without programs. In the jurisdictions with programs, court-appointed special advocates volunteer to advocate for the children in the open cases, making sure the court has the information it needs to make informed decisions about the children’s care.

Last year, CASA served 963 clients, including 511 children, and worked with 179 court-appointed advocates — the need is for another 50-plus advocates to address the number of children on the waiting list for Larimer County. 

“As our community grows so does the need,” Ryan said. “We are just working on our capacity to meet the needs of the community.”

The Harmony House addition will include accessible restrooms, seven offices and a training space that can double as a playroom in the winter months. All but one of the 4.5 offices used in the space will be converted into visitation rooms — one of the offices has five and another has four staff members.

“We are crammed on top of each other,” Ryan said, adding that the addition will help improve staff efficiency. “It’s nice to have a door to close for a meeting or grant writing.”

The training space will allow CASA to train more volunteers, host more classes and serve additional client numbers, plus conduct training on site instead of outsourced at other locations across the county. 

“Having that at a central location will make a world of difference,” said DeAnn Zamora-Schroeder, program manager for CASA of Larimer County. “The biggest thing for us is we are going to have our own space for all of our training and for all of our ongoing meetings and support for our CASA volunteers.” 

CASA volunteers undergo 32 to 40 hours of training before they can take on a case. One such training is for the volunteers, as well as staff, parents and caregivers, in Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a trauma-informed program introduced to Harmony House in 2022. TBRI provides evidence- and science-based training, resources and tools for working with children who have experienced abuse or neglect. The idea is to increase positive interactions by focusing on connecting, empowering and correcting the child in a way that maintains that connection and helps the child feel valued. 

“We teach tools that build safety and regulation, and we integrated that into CASA and the Family Connections program, because, ultimately, it’s about healthy relationships for our kids and families,” Ryan said. “The tools are all around connection … because our kids have lots of ruptures of relationships, so that connection is so key to moving through that.” 

CASA of Larimer County trained 123 parents and caregivers in the TBRI classes and facilitated 1,708 Family Connections in 2023, resulting in 8,835 hours donated by the CASA volunteers. Family Connections is a program where staff provides the families with case management services, evidenced-based training, and supervised family visits and safe exchanges of custody.

CASA of Larimer County is one of the first CASA programs in Colorado and was founded by Judge John-David “Sonny” Sullivan in 1987, 11 years after David W. Soukup started the nonprofit in Seattle, Washington, when he realized he needed more information for a child abuse case and was tasked with determining the services the family needed and the placement for the child. He was presiding over dependency and neglect cases, which included abuse, neglect and domestic violence in some injurious environment.  

“Case workers and attorneys didn’t have enough information about what was happening for the child, so that’s how CASA was born,” Ryan said.

CASA advocates have legal access to school and medical records and can speak on behalf of the child, including providing the child’s perceptions of what’s going on in the case, so that the judge can make better decisions about the case and any treatment plans. The guardian ad litem, or the attorney for the child, gets three hours a month with the child, while the advocates get 15 to 20 hours of information, which can be shared with the court, held on a three-month rotation.

“If there is anything the child needs, then the CASA volunteer will report back to the court those needs,” said Dakota Montez, community engagement manager of CASA of Larimer County. “Then the court can make a more informed decision about the best interests of the child.”

CASA of Larimer County board member Bob Hunt saw that children in the CASA program needed a safe place to meet with their families, so he coordinated the donation of the historic Ziegler farmhouse to CASA in 1991. Renamed Harmony House, it became a space for the supervised visits and custody exchanges and allowed for the launch of the Family Connections program. 

Harmony House is supported by a staff of 20, eight of whom are on the leadership team representing the different programs.  

“Many of us started as CASA volunteers. … That’s a common theme among our staff,” Ryan said.

Ryan initially volunteered with CASA in 2016, becoming program director in 2018 and executive director in 2021. Five of the staff members were previous CASA volunteers.

“Our leadership team as a whole brings lots of different perspectives of how we see the organization operationally from our history with CASA,” Ryan said. “The work we do is hard. The stories families share are hard. As an organization, we need to … create a space for staff where they feel supported and empowered to do this work in a way that’s also healthy for them.”

Montez also started out as a CASA volunteer in 2019, working on a single case for three years. He then became case supervisor for one year before taking on his position two years ago to spread awareness about CASA’s mission. He connects with other organizations and businesses and encourages new volunteers to join the organization.

“I meet people out in the community and connect them where they fit best in the organization,” Montez said. “We actually wouldn’t be able to do any of the work we do from a CASA perspective without volunteers. They play a vital role and are considered professionals.”

Zamora-Schroeder served as a CASA volunteer for 6.5 years before she joined the team in 2019. 

“These are trained volunteers, but they are tasked by the court to really get to know these kids and advocate for resources, services and placement, which is really unique,” Zamora-Schroeder said. “Our CASA volunteers are really making positive changes every single day.”

Construction began in March to add a 2,500-square-foot addition to the south side of Harmony House, a two-story, red brick farmhouse built in 1905 and home of CASA of Larimer County since 1991.

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