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CASA vols provide voice for children

Program, which helps abused and neglected youth, needs more advocates

April 04, 2012
In 2011, nine volunteers were the much-needed voice for 78 children who had been removed from their home and were caught up in the Crawford County court system.

The volunteers were part of the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which represents the interests of those under the age of 18 who have been abused or neglected.

"In some cases, we are the only consistent person in the child's life," Crawford County CASA volunteer coordinator Kay Ellis said.

Each child has a case worker from the Indiana Department of Child Services, but large caseloads often prevent them from spending as much time with the child as is needed, Ellis said. Therefore, once a child has been removed from a home and placed either with relatives or in foster care, the court can assign them a CASA volunteer, she said.

The volunteer spends time with the child, as well as their parents, teachers and other adults in their lives, in order to determine what the best plan is for the child moving forward and then presents a report to the court, Ellis explained.

The national CASA organization, which now has 955 local offices, isn't new, but the Crawford County program began just two years ago. Still, its volunteers already have had a positive impact on the lives of area children, Ellis said.

"Because we are consistent," she said. "We have the time as volunteers. We will go in and spend time" to make sure that all of the child's needs are being met.

Anna, who requested that her name be changed for this article, agreed, saying that her then-3-year-old granddaughter's CASA volunteer, David Jones of Marengo, went "above and beyond" in helping her after she entered the court system after her mother — Anna's daughter — became involved with drugs.

"He was her voice," she said. "I really liked that."

Jones said he tries to make things easier on those caring for the child. For Anna, that meant guiding her through the court process, including giving her the resources to get permanent guardianship of her granddaughter after her daughter failed to get her life back on track within the prescribed amount of time. He also helped in getting her granddaughter, who has high blood pressure, the medical attention she needed and provided Anna, who now has all three of her daughter's children living with her, ideas on how to keep the family together when she was struggling financially.

"He was the one person I knew I could look to," she said.

Jones said he tries to visit the children he is advocating for at least every couple of weeks and often brings a small gift, such as a teddy bear or some fruit. He wants to make sure they are receiving the proper dental and medical care and that other needed services, such as counseling, are available.

"I really work to make sure these kids get what they need," he said.

Volunteers must complete 30 hours of training, which is offered on the weekends at the office in English, and are asked to make an 18-month commitment to the program. The program estimates that volunteers will spend about 10 hours on each case, but, in reality, Ellis said, it can be more.

"It depends on the case how much time you're going to have to spend on it," she said.

Jones estimated he spends a total of 20-plus hours per week helping the 10 children currently on his caseload. The program hopes to reduce the number of children per volunteer to two or three, but that means having more people involved in the program.

"We do not have nearly enough volunteers," Ellis said.

The ideal volunteer, she said, is "someone who can be objective, loves children, obviously, and has the time and the willingness to be involved." She noted that retired persons often make excellent volunteers.

Anna, who was overwhelmed by all of the paperwork and decisions that she already was facing, admitted she was reluctant when the CASA program was first suggested to her, believing it would be just one more big hassle. Having now gone through everything, she said she cannot imagine doing it without CASA.

"I couldn't have done it without him," she said, noting Jones constantly pointed her in the right direction to help her granddaughter. "And, of course, his main goal was her."

Persons interested in becoming a CASA volunteer should contact program director Betty Parke at 338-2695.

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