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CASA gives Crawford children advocate

June 09, 2010
Crawford County now has a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer program that helps children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect.

After applying to the state and national CASA organizations, Crawford County has been certified by each respective organization and is receiving some funding from the state CASA office. The program is part of the county judicial system.

A local CASA office recently was opened in the Patoka Family Health Clinic building in English. Sherrie Bell and Kevin Stilwell, co-directors of the program, have been preparing for volunteers to begin their work.

"We now have several volunteers who have been trained and are working cases," Bell said. "They include Christy Ford, David Jones, Deb Rickenbach and Doug Witt. We're now looking for more volunteers, and we're planning another training session for either July or August. We have to have a background check, be fingerprinted and be approved by the judge. I had one of our volunteers tell me the other day that, even though she has a full-time job, she still feels like she is accomplishing something by volunteering and that she's blessed to be able to help others."

A CASA volunteer is a specially selected, trained and court-appointed supervised individual who speaks for the best interests of children who are brought before the court for reasons of abuse or neglect. As an official part of judicial proceedings, working alongside attorneys and family case managers, a CASA volunteer is an independent legal party to each case.

By handling no more than one or two cases at a time, the CASA volunteer has time to thoroughly explore the history of each assigned case. The volunteer talks with the child, parents, family members, school officials, doctors, therapists and others involved in the child's background who may have facts about the case. The volunteer then submits formal reports to the judge and continues to monitor the case to assure that the judicial and child welfare systems are moving ahead to secure a safe, permanent home for the child and that court-ordered services are being provided to the child and family.

When case proceedings seem to get bogged down or backed up, the CASA volunteer can be an invaluable resource for the child, parents, family case managers and the attorneys in reaching goals for permanency.

The CASA concept was first implemented in 1977 in the state of Washington when a judge felt a compelling need to have more information available to him on which he could base his decisions, which had lifetime ramifications for the children involved. There are now more than 900 CASA programs in the United States with more than 58,000 men and women serving as CASA volunteers.

Bell, Stilwell and Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Lynn Lopp initiated the Crawford County CASA program, partially in response to state legislation in 2005 that mandated CASAs or GALs (Guardian Ad Litem) for all CHINS (children in need of services). Currently in the county, there is a caseload of approximately 60 CHINS children.

State CASA funds of $7,200 are matched with county funds for operation of the program.

"The Crawford County Council has been very supportive with the funding of $16,500 for the local program," Bell said. "Without this support, there would be no volunteer program. Council members are supportive and cooperative, knowing that children whom have been abused or neglected need attention and care, and that attention sometimes involves monetary support."

The Indiana office of GAL/CASA is a program within the Indiana Supreme Court, State Court Administration and exists to facilitate a network among CASA programs in the state. The state office provides guidance and assistance to local programs, provides quality assurance through program standards and certification, and distributes state funds for operation of the programs.

"With approximately 60 current CHINS children and more added periodically, there is a great need for more volunteers," Bell said. "When you help others, it is very rewarding."

To volunteer or for more information, contact Crawford County CASA, P.O. Box 54, English, IN, call 1-812-338-2659 or e-mail crawfordcountycasa@hotmail.com.

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