Needed: Someone to be there for the kids

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, January 12, 2013

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Were you ever a child in a room full of adults?

Do you remember looking up at those faces, all focused on each other, tossing around words you don’t completely understand?

Now imagine that those adults you don’t know, whose words you don’t understand, will have a profound and immediate impact on your life.

WAITING FOR JUSTICE – Wise County kids gathered this week on the courthouse steps in an effort to represent the number of kids who need a CASA volunteer to serve as their advocate in the court system. CASA starts a 10-week training this month for more volunteers for the 70 kids currently in the system. Messenger photo by Mack Thweatt

That’s a glimpse of what it’s like to be “in the system” – to be a child who has been removed from your home because of abuse or neglect, and placed in a foster home under the auspices of Child Protective Services (CPS).

Now imagine that someone in that room full of adults gets down on your level, looks you in the eyes, listens to you and talks to you in words you can understand. They provide a constant, caring presence in your life in which everything else has been turned upside-down.

That’s what a CASA volunteer does.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Wise and Jack County is in desperate need of volunteers who are willing to undergo the training it takes to play that role in the lives of children who have been removed from abusive or neglectful homes by CPS. There’s an orientation session Tuesday for anyone who may be interested in this challenging, but extremely rewarding, job.

“A lot of people are intimidated by the court system and may be completely unfamiliar with it,” said Serene Smith, CASA’s executive director for Wise and Jack counties. “That doesn’t matter. As long as you’re a person of character who cares about kids, we can train you.”

The orientation session is at 6 p.m. at the CASA office, 300 E. Pecan St., in Decatur. Anyone interested in training to become an advocate, or who just wants to know more about the work of CASA in the community, is encouraged to attend. Applications and training materials will be available for those who wish to sign up.

Those wishing to participate in the training who cannot attend the orientation are encouraged to contact Volunteer Coordinator Jan Files at (940) 627-7535. There is no cost to participate in this training. A background check is required.

The Spring Training Academy will meet on Tuesday nights for 10 weeks, Jan. 22 through March 26. A meal will be provided prior to each class at 5:30 p.m. The training will run 6 to 9.

Smith said CASA has 40 cases right now involving 70 children – and only 17 volunteers.

“We don’t like to assign a volunteer more than one case because sometimes in one case, you may have as many as three kids in the family,” she said. “It makes it difficult for them to commit the time they need to commit.”

She said volunteers usually spend about eight hours a month doing things like visiting the child’s foster home or school, making phone calls, sending emails, making sure the child is getting what they need – services like speech therapy, therapeutic riding or other special services.

“That’s all part of the purpose of having an advocate,” she said. “Once children move into foster care, they may have three or four caseworkers and several foster homes. Often there’s no one constant in their lives except the CASA advocate.

“They need to be able to talk to them, pick up on changes in their attitude, what’s going on at school or in the home. They advocate for the child – not the family, not CPS, but what’s in the best interest of the child.”

Smith said some of the parents are also facing criminal charges, but CASA does not deal with the criminal side.

“We deal with the CPS side,” she said. “Getting the child out of the system and into a permanent home as soon as possible is our goal. We want each child to move through the system and into a loving, permanent home.

“Statistics show that if they don’t have an advocate, they’re going go be right back into the system because there’s no one there to say, ‘This is what’s best for the child.'”

Smith, who has lived in Decatur since 1970, started at CASA about eight months ago. Tim Woodruff is the organization’s case supervisor, and Files is volunteer coordinator.

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