CASA Volunteers Look Out for Abused, Neglected Children in Court

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By Margie Richards at MadisonJournalTODAY.com

CASA Northeast Georgia executive director Melissa Mitchell got a letter recently from a child she’d helped as a CASA volunteer a decade ago in Forsyth County. The girl, one of four siblings whose case she had worked, wrote to tell her that she’d just graduated from high school and was headed to North Georgia College. She wanted to thank Mitchell for her help all those years ago.  “Often times, the rewards of being a CASA volunteer are not immediate, but there are many rewards in helping these children,” Mitchell said.

A CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) is a trained community volunteer who is appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child in juvenile court proceedings. The CASA volunteer’s job is to advocate for the child to be placed in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

CASA, a non-profit national organization, came into existence 34 years ago in 1976 when Superior Court Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Washington, observed the recurring problem of too little information in the courtroom upon which to base life-changing decisions about the safety, permanency and well-being of children, according to Mitchell.

“He wanted someone to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the court for these children,” said Mitchell.

According to CASA’s website, Judge Soukup raised funds to recruit and train community volunteers to speak on behalf of children in court. In 1977, a CASA pilot program was formed based on Judge Soukup’s idea. In 1982, the National CASA Association was established to direct CASA’s emerging national presence.

CASA came to Georgia in 1988. In July 2009, Northeast Georgia CASA, formerly called “Mountain Circuit CASA,” expanded into the five counties of the Northern Judicial Circuit, which includes Madison County.

Since that time, a half-dozen Madison County residents have signed on to serve as CASA volunteers, the most of any county in the circuit. And all CASAs frequently cross county lines to work on cases in other areas of the district.

Becoming a volunteer requires a background check, a 10-week (40-hour) training course and ten hours of courtroom observation. At the end of their training, CASAs are sworn in by a juvenile court judge as an officer of the court.

For Carol Gregg, the decision to become a CASA volunteer was an easy one. She retired after a 20-year career with Prevent Child Abuse Georgia and knew she wanted to continue to work for children in the court system.

“CASA was very intertwined with what we were doing and I knew how good they were and what a good reputation they had,” she said. “It’ something I had been wanting to do for a long time.”

“Often children in these situations don’t have anybody just for them and we’re their voice,” Gregg added.
Gregg who currently is working on two separate cases says it’s part of a CASA’s job to get to know the child, read their case files, talk with their DFACS case worker, their doctor, parents, teachers, and anyone else who’s involved in that child’s life.

A CASA volunteer must use this information to then submit a recommendation to the judge with their independent opinion on what’s in the best interest of the child.

And sometimes, their duties may require that they testify in court on the child’s behalf.

Barbara Jackson heard about CASA while visiting her daughter in Tifton. “Her pastor’s wife was talking about CASA and then I saw a (Journal) newspaper article about it last December,” she said.

Mike and Stephanie Jones, of Carlton, also read about it in the newspaper. For them, it was an easy decision to get involved.

“My parents took in foster children and so I grew up knowing not everyone had what I had at home,” she said.
“We got involved because we love children.”

Both their cases are in Elbert County and they are involved with one older child and one younger child.

Both say it’s been an intensive, heart-wrenching experience. “It’s hard to see something that needs to be done and not do it,” Mr. Jones said.

But despite the heartache, both say they’re very glad they got involved.

Co-workers Patrice Luke and Deborah Burdette also approach their CASA cases as a team.

“They call us the ‘Tag-team CASAs,” Luke jokes.

But it works – she adds. They collaborate on their cases and work together for the best interest of the children involved.

And as a retired high school teacher, Luke knows the results may not always be immediate, so, as in teaching, she tries to keep her mind on the “big picture” of where she fits in that child’s life.

And sometimes deciding what’s in the best interest of the child may not be what the child wants.

“Sometimes there are tough decisions to make,” she said.

But of course, the final decision on any case is made by the judges – and in the Northern Circuit the judges are Chris NeSmith and Warren Caswell.

“Both these judges are awesome,” Mr. Jones said. “They seem empathetic and really listen to the children.”

CASAs will stay involved with a child’s case until it achieves “permanency” – whether that’s a few months, or a few years.

And their service is totally as a volunteer – they don’t even receive reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses such as mileage.

“Being a volunteer is a powerful thing,” Jackson said. “I was told by one child, ‘I trust you because you’re not getting paid.’”

“We really are there just for the child,” she added.

Luke remembers taking her high school senior class to hear a case in superior court.

“It was a child abuse case and a lot of them said ‘we didn’t know this kind of thing happened in Madison County,’” she remembers. “Sometimes people turn a blind eye to these things.”

“I’ve always felt I should give something back,” Gregg said. “I grew up in a good family and a lot of children don’t – they kind of have the cards stacked against them from the beginning.”

“It the best thing to give your time and energy too,” Luke said.

The Northeast Georgia CASA office is located in Toccoa. Besides Mitchell, there is one additional full-time person and three part-time employees. The staff, along with a board of directors, provides support and back up to the 54 active CASA volunteers.

And more volunteers are needed. Mitchell points out that if another child were taken into custody by the local Madison County DFACS right now, they would be hard-pressed to serve that child.

A new training session is set for September.

CASA is also in need of donations to help provide support, training and materials. You can become a “Friend of CASA” by pledging $100 or more per year to NE Georgia CASA on a regular basis, but all donations are greatly appreciated.

Contact Mitchell at 706-886-1098 or necasa@windstream.net to volunteer, donate, or to find out more about CASA.

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Republished with permission from MadisonJournalTODAY.com

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