A new law requiring an additional background check for people who want to become advocates is a major step forward for the 22nd Judicial District's Court Appointed Advocates program, the program's executive director said Friday.

We really work hard to vet our volunteers to ensure that they're safe,” Gwen Gjovig said. “This is just the last topping on the cake that we can get all that information.”

Gjovig said the local CASA program already takes several steps to screen potential advocates, including criminal background checks, vehicle checks and extensive interviews. But she said CASA was unable to access information about whether volunteers had any abuse or neglect complaints against them — until now.

The new law, which takes effect Nov. 1, requires advocate' names to be submitted to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for a child welfare records search. DHS will conduct the search using the child abuse and neglect information system.

The law is designed to protect CASA's clients, state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton said in an April 24 news release.

“Being that these advocates are working with vulnerable children, it's imperative that we ensure they are trustworthy and have no abuse or neglect complaints against them,” the Muskogee Republican said “These children have already been through too much pain and heartache. This program makes sure they get the assistance they need so they don't fall through the cracks of the legal and social service systems.”

Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, was the measure's principal author in the House.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation currently conducts criminal history searches to see if advocates have any criminal convictions, according to the news release. Local programs may also require additional background checks under the Oklahoma Court-Appointed Special Advocate Association's standards.

CASA volunteers works with abused and neglected children whose cases are moving through the court system. The volunteers gather information that will help the court understand each child's situation, then make an independent, objective recommendation that will serve the child's best interests.

The 22nd Judicial District's CASA program is recruiting volunteers for training this summer. For more information, contact the program at 580-332-1441.

Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.