Salem city councilor named next leader of Marion County CASA

There are some images Vanessa Nordyke can’t unsee.

The third-generation Salem lawyer and city councilor has spend more than a decade at the Oregon Department of Justice, where her work included arguing to uphold the convictions of people found guilty of child abuse, rape and other serious crimes.

Every case meant reviewing the full investigative file, Nordyke said, watching interviews with children who have been sexually assaulted or videos of murders.

“You can’t help but see the world differently after you wake up to the reality and prevalence of abuse,” Nordyke said.

That experience led her to her new job — one she said plays a vital role in keeping vulnerable kids safe.

Nordyke is the new executive director of CASA of Marion County, the local arm of the national nonprofit that pairs children in the foster care system with court-appointed volunteer advocates.

She began the new role this week.

Nordyke takes the reins from Shaney Starr, who has led the local CASA nonprofit since May 2016. Starr, also a Keizer city councilor, moved to a position with the national Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children organization in August, where she’ll help start new CASA programs and expand existing ones.

“The staff are excellent at what they do and I have all the confidence they will continue to place the priority on doing what is in the best interest of the children and families and recognizing the enormous asset our volunteers are and that without them, the program wouldn’t exist,” Starr said in an email.

She said community support of the program was a point of pride during her tenure.

“They rallied around our most vulnerable children and through their support of time, talent and treasure said to every abused and neglected child in foster care that they will not let their story end like this and  that there is hope for a brighter future,” she said.

Nordyke said she’s eager to continue Starr’s work and ready to move into a non-attorney job, saying she’s accomplished her goals as a lawyer during her work for the justice department.

Those include winning multiple trials on behalf of the state and serving as president of the Oregon Bar Association, becoming the youngest person elected to the role in 2018.

Nordyke eventually asked to focus on other work at the justice department because the mental toll of seeing video, photos and testimony about horrific crimes wore on her.

“I don’t know anyone who walks away from that work who isn’t impacted by it,” she said. “It’s just a never-ending conveyer belt of trauma.”

At CASA, she hopes to work on the other side of the issue, getting more children paired with advocates who will help keep them safe.

“We need responsible adults to advocate for children in very vulnerable situations and kids in foster care are very vulnerable,” she said.

Nordyke said she’s grateful to Starr for her work leading the nonprofit and she doesn’t have plans to radically reshape operations. She plans to work with the nonprofit’s board, existing employees and stakeholders to develop a plan, saying ultimately her goal would be that every child who could benefit from an advocate has one available to them.

Nordyke will continue to serve on the Salem City Council, an unpaid volunteer position, in addition to her CASA work.

“I’ve always had community service as a side hustle but now I get to do it as a paid position,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.