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A voice for the future

April 11, 2012
Last week, I wrote an article about the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Crawford County. It is a good program because it helps kids by giving them a chance at happiness.

A person going down the wrong path in life can change, but life is a whole lot easier if the person is shown the right path when they are young. The CASA program aims to do that by giving a voice in court to those younger than 18 who have been abused or neglected and removed from their home.

Often, CASA kids come from broken homes, where their parents, whether it be because of drugs, alcohol or something else, have lost their focus to take care of their child as they should.

While the hope of everyone, from the CASA volunteer to the judge to the state case worker, is to reunify the family, the ultimate goal is to do what is best, in the short term as well as the long term, for the child. The role of the CASA volunteer is to talk with the adults in the child's life — parents, grandparents, teachers, etc. — and prepare a report for the court that outlines how best to do that.

Because state case workers tend to be overloaded, the CASA volunteer many times ends up being the primary advocate for the child, making sure basic needs that often have been neglected, such as medical and dental exams, are met.

But CASA volunteers often go far beyond that. In order to keep some semblance of normalcy, the court many times places a child with extended family members. The downside is those families sometimes are just barely making ends meet, and the addition of another person in the household only stretches their already thin budget. To help the children, the CASA volunteers must also help those with whom the children are living, making sure they seek out all possible services for which they are eligible. In essence, the CASA volunteers also become advocates for the family.

That help also includes being a calming influence and offering guidance during what can be an extremely complicated, and worrisome, time. In last week's story, "Anna," whose 3-year-old granddaughter came to live with her after the mother — Anna's daughter — became involved with drugs, said she was overwhelmed by all of the paperwork and decisions that had to be made and credited her granddaughter's CASA volunteer, David Jones of Marengo, for going "above and beyond" in helping her and, in turn, her granddaughter.

"I couldn't have done it without him," she said.

Another woman, who now has custody of all three of her young grandchildren, echoed Anna. She said that Jones, who also was her grandchildren's CASA volunteer, knew all of the questions to ask during team meetings, questions that she hadn't thought to ask.

She also said he helped her get flooring to complete updating her home, making it a better place for the children.

Being a CASA volunteer can be rewarding — "If I know I've made an impact in somebody's life, it's worth more to me than a million dollars," Jones told me — but it also can be draining, both emotionally and physically.

In 2011, nine CASA volunteers helped 78 children in Crawford County. The program estimates that about 10 hours are spent on each case, but, depending on the circumstances, it can be considerably more. In addition, while volunteers ideally would have no more than two or three cases at a time, as it would keep them from getting burned out and ensure that each child gets the attention he or she deserves, Jones currently has 10.

In short, more volunteers are desperately needed.

To be a good CASA volunteer, a person must be objective, has the necessary time (retired persons often are ideal), is willing to become involved in the life of the child, and can emotionally handle the often difficult circumstances that led to the child being removed from the home. But, most of all, they must love children and want to ensure that the child has the opportunity for a good future.

To become a volunteer, a person must complete 30 hours of training during the course of several weekends at the CASA office in English.

Being a CASA volunteer isn't easy — from the training to the emotional roller coaster of working with children who, through no fault of their own, are caught up in the system — but the investment can have a payoff like no other: a bright future for a child who otherwise might not have one.

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

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