A Volunteer Voice for the Innocent

by | Apr 1, 2008 | Community, Features

Story by Dianne Edwards

Eleven-year-old Cathy* had been shuffled from placement to placement a total of five times in three months. Removed from the home of her divorced parents, the youngster was sent to live in a Fort Smith shelter. After reportedly being approached by a staff member who tired to kiss her, she ran away. A sixth grader on the street..

She was located and placed by a child protective services case worker, first in a Christian Shelter in Little Rock, then at Rivendale — a behavorial health center — for evaluation. Diagnosed with anger issues, Cathy was placed with another caregiver then assigned to live with a therapeutic foster family in Northwest Arkansas, miles away from where she once lived. Happily, her foster mother reports she is well-adjusted and doing well in school.

Five placements in three months. According to the Honorable Ken Coker, Circuit Judge for the 5th Judicial District Juvenile Court: “she didn’t even have time to unpack her suitcase.”

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

The fault may not lay with Child Protective Services — Department of Human Services caseworkers are overloaded and overworked. Most juggle as many as 32 cases at a time.
According to a former DHS case worker, 60-hour work weeks and 24/7 on-call are common. That can wreck their personal lives and jeopardize relationships with their own family.

The fault falls squarely on the parents of these neglected children. According to Genney Baker, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the 5th District, as many as 90% of the parents of children placed in the system are addicted to, or involved with, methamphetamines.

Between July 1 and June 30, 2007, 164 children were removed from homes in Pope, Johnson and Franklin Counties due to environmental conditions, neglect, abandonment and physical abuse, reported Baker.
“It’s an epidemic,” she confirms.

Baker, who started as a volunteer in 2001, had recently moved to Russellville from Seattle, Wash., with her husband and daughter. The family now includes three children.

“When I first started volunteering with CASA, I was dumbfounded on how many abused and neglected children there were in our community.,” recalled Baker.

“Over time, I saw first hand the difference CASA volunteers made in the lives of children in foster care. I knew this was a program I would be with for as long as they would have me.

Baker was hired as part-time coordinator for Pope County in 2003, began serving as Interim Director in March 2006 and was hired as Executive Director in May 2006.

Her first involvement with the CASA program was as a volunteer for three young sisters who had been removed from the home. Two of the youngest were adopted while the oldest “aged out” of the system at age 18 before permanent placement was arranged.

Like other volunteer advocates, Baker still keeps in touch with “her young lady.”

“I can’t call her a ‘kid’ anymore. She is now 22 years old, married, lives in Texas, and just had a baby boy.”

“It’s extremely important, especially for the older children who often have no one — no mother or father, no relative — with whom they can talk. We chat almost every week.”

According to the national website, CASA is the only volunteer organization that empowers everyday citizens as appointed members of the court. In an overburdened social welfare system, abused and neglected children often slip through the cracks among hundreds of current cases. CASA volunteers change that.

“The children (infant through age 18) we work with are placed in to the foster care system for their own safety,” said Baker. “However, what many people do no understand is this is just the beginning of a new set of events for these precious, young and innocent children.”

What does it take to be a CASA?

“Not everyone is cut out to be a CASA volunteer, but there are still ways that they can help. Everything that can be done for these kids, needs to be done.”

“You don’t have to have a background in law or social work, our volunteers simply have to have a heart for kids in crisis. CASAs gather information which is reported to the court so that the judge might make well- informed choices which are in the child’s best interest,” said Baker.

These are not your typical volunteers,” admits Baker. “Most importantly, they must have a heart for kids. It’s not for everyone. We mentor our volunteers closely and spend a lot of time going through the process so that they understand just what is needed.”

Mentoring includes going to court with the CASA. Someone from the office is in court two to three days every week.

To serve, one must be 21 years of age and complete the volunteer application and training process. A total of 30 hours are required and covers the policy of the CASA program, DHS and Juvenile Court. Six hours of juvenile court observation is also required. Upon completion, the CASA is sworn in as an advocate by Judge Coker.

Volunteers review cases and work with those which they feel equipped to handle. They manage only one or two at a time and stay with the case until permanent placement is found. A year’s commitment is requested.

Rhonda McBride is a CASA volunteer. She was introduced to the CASA program by her volunteer daughter. Even though Rhonda quickly discovered she was not prepared to serve directly, she offered her assistance in other ways.

With a background in tax preparation and accounting, Rhonda helped track the organization’s finances. She serves as secretary and treasurer to the CASA board and, says Baker, “We could not do this without her.”

“If you have a heart for kids, you can make a difference,” Rhonda declares.

Cara Woodson, a one-time volunteer turned CASA Volunteer Coordinator, came to the program as an Arkansas Tech student of psychology and criminal justice. Part of the responsibilities she shares with CASA’s newest employee, Ladell Short, include answering the phone, directing information to the advocates, coordinating court dates in three counties, and serving as general assistant to the CASA program.

After learning that she had been adopted, Woodson explored her own family dynamics. As a 6th grader, she decided to be a social worker. Following a career in the military, Woodson, a single mom, began the path that brought her to Russellville and eventually to a full-time position with CASA.

Short brings with her an abundance of career experience having worked as a case worker for the Department of Human Services. Ladell knows the horrendous situations experienced by many children and hopes her previous efforts will give her an edge in assisting CASA as part- time coordinator.

A Day in Court

During a recent day in court, Judge Coker admonished the system that had allowed 11-year-old Cathy* to be relocated five times in three months.

“I don’t have to tell you that I’m not pleased with how many moves this child has had,” he told the representing DHS attorney sternly. “I don’t want to see this child moved again unless something drastic happens. Do you understand?”

Turning his attention to Cathy*, Judge Coker praised her for keeping up with her schooling and urged her to keep working on her behavior.

“You are obviously a very intelligent girl, and I want you to know that we are going to do everything we can to make the best choices for you.”

Later, he pointed out that this was a case for which a CASA volunteer had been requested, yet no one was available.

“There are 18 similar cases that had an advocate requested yet there are not enough volunteers to go around. This is why we desperately need CASA volunteers, people who care about kids, willing to speak up for these children in crisis,” stressed Judge Coker.

Judge Coker was named CASA’s Judge of the Year during the 10th annual Arkansas CASA conference in Little Rock in 2007. Recognized for his dedication to ensuring the safety of children in permanent homes and for his support of CASA of the 5th Judicial District, he is dedicated to kids in crisis.

“Judge Coker makes children the very center of his life,” believes Baker.

He is the father of three sons, yet has chaperoned a group of teens on a ski trip and coahces youth sports in addition to his courtduties.Heconducts“ADayinJuvenile Court” to educate local fifth graders about the legal system and to encourage them to stay out of trouble.

Jeff Faught, a Russellville attorney serves as the ad liteum for CASA. He represents children in dependency- neglect cases in the 5th Judicial District, and was named CASA’s Attorney and ad litem of the year in 2007 by the Arkansas State CASA Association.

“Jeff has a reputation for providing excellent legal advocacy to the kids he represents,”saidJulianneHolloway,director of the Arkansas State Association. “He works diligently to improve the systmic processes that impact the lives of foster children.”

“Without Judge Coker and Jeff Faught, we couldn’t do what we do,” Baker said.

Within the 5th District, there are at least 40 children awaiting a CASA.

“It is always heartbreaking not having a volunteer for a child that has just been removed from their home, family, friends, and often their school due to no fault of their own,” says Baker.

“Our goal is to have CASAs waiting for kids, not kids waiting for CASAs, says Baker.

While there is a huge need for additional CASA volunteers, Baker is quick to thank those who already give generously of their time and talent.

They include the volunteers: Charles Atkins, John Lavelle, Jeanette Redford, Andrea Chenault, Myrtle Collier, Tracy Garret, Linda Tilley, Marla Hartman, Connie Chesner, Cheryl Altemus, Lincoln Barr, Janet Barrow,Todd Chilcoat, Valarie Bewley, Pam Cook,Patricia Davis, Viva Ivey, Mary Kirkconnell, Sandy Lee, Liz McClanahan, Darrell Lewis, Marsha Wells, Robert Whitehead and Lindsey Ingmire.

The CASA board, which consists of seven members, are critical to the program, as well. They include: Pam Halverson and Val Fisher, co-chairs; Rhonda McBride, secretary-treasurer; Jay Wellwood, Jeri Cox, Don Stimpson, and Debbie Bewley.

Across the nation, more than 50,000 CASA volunteers advocated for 225,000 children in 2007 — an impressive number yet just HALF of those in the child welfare system at any given time. Children with a CASA are less likely to re-enter Child Services.

Foster Homes, Parents Needed

There is also a huge need for foster homes for these children, many of whom are moved repeatedly from location to location, requested Baker.

“They need permanence, they need stability, care and understanding. They are the victims and yet they are the ones removed from their homes, school, family, friends, and are placed into a home or shelter with strangers with just a few of their own belongings. They often internalize the blame and carry the heavy guilt on their shoulders.”

Due to the lack of foster homes, sadly many children are not able to stay in the same foster home and once again have to adjust to a strange new place, and more often than not another new school.

“While their caseworkers and placements may change, their CASA remains the same,” added Baker.

“Our dedicated volunteers give these children a voice in court and strive to give them back hope. The work CASA volunteers do is priceless and will have an effect for generations to come.

For additional information or to learn how you can be a CASA volunteer, please contact CASA of the 5th District at (479) 880-1195.

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