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CASA accomplishes much with little

July 03, 2013
Here are three numbers that are important to remember: 70, 13 and zero.

The first is number of children in Crawford County currently assigned to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which represents the interests of those younger than 18 who have been abused or neglected.

Betty Parke, director of the Crawford County Court Appointed Special Advocates Program, back left, and Kevin Stilwell, back right, the program's only paid staff (both are part time) meet with volunteers during a recent training at the CASA office in English. Photo by Chris Adams
The second is the number of CASA volunteers in Crawford County.

And the last, which local CASA officials are most proud of, is the number of children on the program's waiting list.

The latter is only possible because of the dedication of the small number of volunteers who work tirelessly — often far exceeding the five to 10 hours per month the national CASA program says volunteers can expect to put in per case — at being the much-needed voice for children who have been removed from their home and caught up in the Crawford County court system.

It's not without heartache, however. At a training last month at the CASA office in English, the volunteers, one by one, shared updates on their cases. Even in the instances where progress has been made — either reunification of a family or children being adopted into a new, loving home — their voices, while filled with optimism, also contained a sadness because of the circumstances that necessitated their involvement in the first place.

Whether it is a baby born addicted to drugs because his mother used while she was pregnant, a father telling case workers that he doesn't care if they take his children away because he can just have more, or sisters being split up, the tragedies are real.

Betty Parke and Kevin Stilwell, the program's only paid staff (although both are part time, it's not unusual for them to put in well beyond 40 hours in a week), said it is difficult not to carry the burdens home at night. However, knowing that they are giving some of the kids an opportunity for a happier childhood and brighter future makes it worth it, Parke said.

"We've got 70 of them," Parke, the program's director, said of the current number of children in the program. "They're not all successes, but some of them are."

Stilwell, who has been working with kids wrapped up in the court system for more than a decade, said it sometimes takes a long time — even years — for those successes.

"Now, we're getting to the second generation," Parke said, explaining previous children in the system have become parents and are repeating the same mistakes as their parents. "That's what we wanted to avoid."

Besides giving children a chance at a better life, the program, she said, benefits everyone. Each success story, Parke explained, means there is another productive member of society, one who is paying taxes and adding to the economy, instead of draining it.

However, it's an investment, not only of the time of the CASA volunteers, but of financial resources, Parke said. If a child in the system is nearing 18, she implores the CASA volunteers to do whatever they can to keep the child in the system until they turn 18 so that they will be eligible for assistance with things like attaining their GED. It is a small price to pay to ensure success, she said.

Parke noted that one of their second-generation cases involves a child whose mother was in the CASA program but was removed from the court system shortly before turning 18 and, therefore, didn't receive help getting a GED. Instead, she said, circumstances just continued the cycle of misfortune.

It isn't unusual for there to be waiting lists at other CASA programs around the state, even those with fewer children and more volunteers, Parke said. However, that's not the case for the Crawford County program, which just received a Certificate of Excellence.

"There is no such thing as a waiting list in Crawford County because of you guys, and that's why we got this," Parke told the volunteers at the training.

More volunteers are needed, however. Parke said all volunteers are different, but they should, above all, have a love of children. Besides that, they should be intuitive, have an attention to detail, and be honest and patient, she said, adding that some of the children, after having been through what they have, have issues. In addition, volunteers must complete 30 hours of training, which is offered at English on the weekends.

Parke and Stilwell also credited the support of Crawford Circuit Court Judge K. Lynn Lopp to the program's success. He has been a strong proponent, having gone before the county council to tell of its successes, including saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, as the county, if it didn't have a CASA program, would have to hire attorneys to advocate on the children's behalf. Instead, the cost to the county is just a fraction of that.

For more information about the CASA program or about becoming a volunteer, call Parke at 338-2695.

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