Ex-CASA volunteer says she worked for 8 months without being required to get state-mandated background check

Local CASA program dissolved after audit found violations
Former CASA of Owen, Grant and Carroll Counties volunteer Rianna Gayheart
Posted at 7:55 AM, Jul 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-21 21:03:07-04

WILLIAMSTOWN, KY — A former court-appointed special advocate for children in Kentucky said she had access to the children and their confidential records for eight months, even though she hadn't been required to complete state-mandated background checks and training.

Rianna Gayheart was a volunteer in 2021 with the CASA program in Owen, Grant and Carroll Counties.

"It's a great program when it does what it's supposed to do," Gayheart said. "I think our specific branch of CASA didn't do anything close to what it was supposed to do."

A Kentucky CASA Network (KCN) audit on Dec. 20, 2021 found the local CASA program had "egregious violations" of "numerous" Kentucky statutes and CASA standards, according to a letter KCN Board Chair Joe Schuler sent to the local CASA board and executive director Julie Jernigan.

Former office of the now closed CASA program for Carroll, Grant and Owen Counties
Former office of the now closed CASA program for Carroll, Grant and Owen Counties

The audit, first reported by the WCPO 9 I-Team in May, found volunteers hadn't been properly screened and trained.

"According to the Executive Director, she informally speaks to a prospective volunteer and determines suitability," Schuler wrote.

The audit found volunteer worksheets and other key documents missing from files.

At 1:35 p.m. on the day of the audit, Jernigan emailed seven volunteers a blank 'Central Registry Check' form and urged them to "fill out this form IMMEDIATELY and get it back to me AS SOON AS POSSIBLE."

"I'd never seen it before that day," Gayheart said.

Gayheart said she had been working on a case for eight months when Jernigan asked her to complete the form.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services uses the information to see if individuals have a record of 'substantiated' child abuse or neglect. CASA workers are supposed to get those background checks before getting approved for cases.

"It made me nervous," Gayheart said.

Jernigan has not responded to the WCPO 9 I-Team's recent requests for comment on this story. Previously, Jernigan claimed she couldn't comment because she had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the local CASA board.

Julie Jernigan
Julie Jernigan

Former local CASA board chair Jamie Baker also declined requests for an interview.

Schuler sent his letter to Jernigan and the local CASA board on Dec. 22, 2021, two days after the audit.

"Any and all volunteer and staff case activity and services provided by the program must cease immediately, and until further notice," Schuler emphasized in the letter.

"It was devastating," Gayheart said. "The foster families involved in the case didn't know what was going on."

Gayheart said Jernigan and Baker did not explain why the program's services had stopped.

"There was just no communication whatsoever," she said.

The state CASA network and local CASA program declined to provide details about the local program’s failures citing laws protecting their records.  

The I-Team cited the letter revealing the audit findings in a previous story. We obtained that letter from a source. Then, we confirmed its authenticity. 

Later, the I-Team obtained the emails of a CASA board member through a request filed under the Kentucky Open Records Act because she used her government email account. 

Her emails show in October 2021, the local CASA program volunteers advocated for 22 children. Fourteen of those children were 7 or younger.  

Only one child in Owen, Grant, and Carroll Counties currently has a CASA volunteer, according to Nicky Jefferies, the director of CASA of the Northern Bluegrass Region based in Covington.

The Northern Bluegrass Region took over Owen, Grant and Carroll Counties after the program in Williamstown closed.

"Bluegrass Region's expansion into Carroll, Owen & Grant is still in its beginning stages," Jefferies wrote in an email response to the I-Team's questions. "We are in the midst of recruiting and training new volunteer advocates with a goal to serve every child at the hands of abuse and neglect in our 7 county region which covers Kenton, Campbell, Pendleton, Harrison, Carroll, Owen & Grant."

Longtime northern Kentucky family law attorney Stephanie Dietz said the sudden ending to the relationship between children and their CASA volunteer could make the children feel abandoned by a program and volunteer that were supposed to advocate for them.

"The fact that these kids were not able to say goodbye, I can only imagine added another piece of trauma to their lives that's going to become another part of their story that they're going to have to overcome," Dietz said.

Family law attorney Stephanie Dietz
Family law attorney Stephanie Dietz

At the I-Team's request, Dietz reviewed the CASA audit findings. One of her biggest concerns was the local CASA program's failure to do state-mandated background checks before volunteers worked with children and had access to their confidential records.

"It's very alarming," Dietz said. "In a private adoption, it's one of the first things we have to do."

Dietz said the failure to properly train volunteers would have a significant impact on how they advocated for children.

"If they're not trained appropriately that causes me concern that they don't know what to do with the information that they have," Dietz said. "How do they know how to make recommendations? Are they working with the social worker? Are they finding something that the social worker hasn't found? It questions the entire investigation that the CASA worker is doing."

"I think CASA in general is a phenomenal program," Gayheart said.

But Gayheart said based on her experience with the former CASA program based in Williamstown, she's not planning to become a CASA volunteer again.

Jernigan is now a guardian ad litem, appointed by a judge to represent children in court as their attorney.

State records show Jernigan also filed to run for family court judge in Owen, Grant and Carroll counties. On her campaign website, Jernigan describes her professional experience and work in the community.

She doesn't mention CASA.