Community , Legal

Longtime Pawnee/Osage CASA director announces retirement

Helen Echohawk Norris, who over the years has tirelessly worked to keep the Pawnee/Osage Court Appointed Special Advocates program operating, has announced her retirement.

“I would like to Thank the Osage Nation Congress, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, and the Osage Nation Judicial branch. We could not have operated without the financial assistance from the Nation,” she said. “Osages supported our fundraisers; Osage artists donated their time and art and most importantly Osages volunteered their time to help children through the courts.”

Norris, Pawnee and married to former Osage Nation Congressman Jim Norris, has been project director of the Pawnee/Osage CASA for 24 years. The Pawnee/Osage CASA program trains and supports volunteers who serve at-risk children in the Pawnee and Osage county court systems, as well as the Osage and Pawnee tribal courts. Formed in 2009, the program is the only CASA that serves two tribal courts and two counties.

CASA volunteers are the eyes and ears of the court, monitoring a child’s living situation as they transition from the foster system to a home. They monitor the child’s school activity, general well-being, and reports directly to the judge handling the child’s case. Norris, through fundraising, grant funding and at times her own money, has kept the noble work of CASA going for the two communities.

Terry Mason Moore, Chair of the CASA advisory board for the Pawnee/Osage CASA, said she remembers when Norris came to her about the program when she was the Chief Judge for the Pawnee Nation in the early 2000s. Her court handled Child Welfare cases that were initiated at the tribal court level or were transferred from state court.

“After studying what was required, she put together an amendment to the juvenile code for adoption by the Pawnee Business Committee that would allow CASA to participate in child welfare cases when appointed,” Mason Moore said. “They passed the amendment, and the Pawnee tribal court was in a position to begin appointing CASA workers to children’s cases.”

Mason Moore said she provided the legal language and support for the CASA workers to provide services in tribal court and worked with Norris to provide tribal court training to the CASA volunteers.

“I then worked with Helen to provide tribal court training to the CASA volunteers so that they would be familiar with the similarities and differences from state court, and our training incorporated the structure of the Pawnee tribe, some history, and most importantly, cultural sensitivity for working with Pawnee children, Native parents and tribal child welfare staff,” Mason Moore said. “Helen worked with the CASA volunteers to train them on writing reports for the case reviews and for their duties with the child or children in their assigned case. A CASA volunteer is only assigned one case and stays with that case until the child is adopted or aged out. This is so beneficial to the child because they have the stability of a constant worker in their life when social workers are often reassigned and handle dozens of cases.”

The program worked so well that Norris expanded it to Osage County and then to the Osage Nation court. Together, Mason Moore and Norris prepared an amendment to the Osage juvenile code that was passed and allowed CASA volunteers into tribal court. The Nation began making an annual donation to the CASA program, which allowed it to grow and serve more children in foster care, Mason Moore said.

“Helen has always been driven to engage the community in providing support and volunteers for CASA and has always advocated for the children. Upon her retirement, she thanked the advisory board for its support and stated, ‘We have been able to speak for 482 children in all four courts; 48% were Native children, 439 children’s cases were closed, and the children were adopted, placed in guardianship, returned home, or aged out of the system,’” Mason Moore said. “Pawnee/Osage CASA will miss her leadership. I already do.” 

In 2016, Norris was named to the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association’s Tribal Leadership Council. She had tremendous community support over the years, as was evident by the yearly fundraisers such as the annual CASA Birdhouse Auction, Artist Apron Auction, the Osage Women’s Conference and more.

Following her announcement, Norris said, “I am looking forward to spending more time with Jim, my daughters and grandchildren.”

For more information about the National CASA Association, visit www.casaforchildren.org