Supports neglected and abused children
Every day in the United States, approximately 1,900 children are victimized by abuse or neglect, and four will die. Children in foster care have been removed from homes torn apart by marital disputes, alcoholism, drug addiction, criminal activity, mental illness, and other problems. When law enforcement enters the picture, the children’s futures are placed in the hands of the courts. The Court Appointed Special Advocate® system, better known as CASA, speaks for these children.
The program started in 1977 when a Seattle juvenile court judge became concerned that he was entrusted with making drastic decisions about children’s lives with insufficient information. He came up with the idea of involving citizen volunteers to speak up for the best interests of abused and neglected children. The idea caught on, and CASA was formed. From that first program, nearly 1,000 CASA programs are in place in 49 states, including East Texas.
Court Appointed Special Advocates of Harrison County is the regional CASA organization serving Harrison, Marion, and Panola counties. Kathryn Barber serves on the board. Panola County volunteers include Carol Brightwell, Kim Collier, Gloria Creel, Tony Doria, Lacy Jones, Suzanne Mason, DeeLee McJimsey, Dana Miller, Renee Nolen, Diane Phillips, Loren Stephenson, Amber Travis, Kaitlyn Whiddon, and Sara Worsham. Of the 131 children served by the regional CASA office, 28 are in Panola County.
“We have children of all ages, up to 18,” Barber said. “CASA’s role is to be a voice for the child. The judge wants to hear what we think is best for the child, not just what CPS thinks. In many cases, the CASA volunteer is the one constant in the child’s life because the case may be moved from court to court and from one CPS caseworker to another. I was a CPS caseworker in the Houston area, and in the 1990s, children were being taken from their homes and placed in shelters. If at all possible, I would do anything to avoid taking custody of a child. Somebody loves you at your house, even though they may have problems.”
Tony Doria is a longtime Panola County CASA volunteer. He says he became involved in CASA as a tribute to his late wife, who died three years ago. “Lisa had a heart for kids that had struggles,” he said. “We took some of them into our home. I started working with CASA as a testimony to Lisa, and it gave me something positive to be doing to fill the gap in my life.”
Tony said that CASA volunteers have to look for the light at the end of the tunnel with some of the cases. “I’ve got a couple of cases where the kids are finally doing well. They are now in a loving home and their needs are being met. I have one little boy who has just flourished with his foster parents. You see joy return to these children’s lives when they get secure again.”
While some of the CASA children are permanently removed from their birth parents’ custody, others are able to return. “It’s great when we see them go back to their parents, and the parents have a new lease on life and a new focus on keeping their kids safe and providing for them in a better way,” he said.
CASA volunteers give children much more than just a voice in court. These adults, working with foster parents and CPS, give them the closest thing to a normal childhood they have ever known. CASA works with the courts and CPS to help families resolve the issues contributing to abuse and neglect, but, if those efforts fail, CASA helps with adoption or other permanent solutions.
In addition to mentoring and counseling, CASA volunteers serve as substitutes for caring parents by giving the children clothes, birthday, graduation and Christmas gifts, prom dresses, and money for driver’s education. These are normal things most children take for granted. For children in the court system, these “normal things” can help erase the shame of being in foster care, and help rebuild their self-esteem.
CASA volunteers are screened and go through rigorous training before being assigned to a child or a set of siblings. By being appointed to only one child or set of siblings at a time, the CASA volunteer focuses on providing the kind of individual attention and advocacy so desperately needed.
Panola County volunteer Gloria Creel retired from Carthage Independent School District in 2003, after a 40-year career working with children. Her last position was as principal of Libby Elementary School.
“Since I worked with small children for so many years, I asked to work with young children as a CASA volunteer,” she said. She and DeeLee McJimsey volunteer together through CASA to help Panola County children and the two appear in court almost every month to stand with children in need.
Gloria and DeeLee have worked with CASA for the past three years, and have served more than 15 children. “We are the eyes and ears of the child. We visit each child every month. If the children are school age, we make an appointment with the teacher and check to see how things are going. We make routine home visits – planned and unannounced. When we are assigned new children, we always take a blanket and a book to them.”
Gloria said the Potpourri Club makes blankets and the Retired Teachers Association provides books for the children. “When I visit the teacher, we take a book for the teacher to read to the class and announce that the CASA child’s ‘friend’ gave the book to the class. The kids stand up a little taller when that’s announced to the class. They need all the positive strokes they can get.”
Gloria says drugs are the root cause of most of the problems that result in children being taken into foster care in Panola County. “There are more cases than there have ever been. Almost every case we’ve had has been drug-related. We desperately need more volunteers, financial support, and, of course, prayers,” she said.
CASA is always in need of mature, responsible adults who are interested in helping children. Volunteers must be over age 21, willing to commit at least one year to the program, be able to effectively communicate orally and in writing, be willing to participate in an in-depth training program, and be able to pass criminal and CPS history background checks. Training and support are provided through CASA College, a clearinghouse of training resources, including in-person training, on-demand workshops, and online training sessions covering every aspect of CASA interactions with children and the court system. CASA volunteers include teachers, business people, retirees and grandparents – just about anyone who cares about children and wants to make sure the voices of abused and neglected children are heard.