Children come first for Court Appointed Special Advocates

Wed, 08/13/2008 - 9:19am
By: Carolyn Cary

Children come first for Court Appointed Special Advocates

The abbreviation is CASA, but the full name says it all: Court Appointed Special Advocates. They may be court appointed, but they are strictly volunteers to provide efficient advocacy for the deprived children in our community.

The original program began in 1977 when a Seattle judge conceived the idea of using trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court. The program was so successful that judges across the country began utilizing citizen advocates.

In 1990 the United States Congress encouraged the expansion of CASA programs with the passage of the Victims of Child Abuse Act. Today there are more than 59,000 volunteers that serve 243,000 abused and neglected children through over 900 local program offices nationwide. One of those local programs is here in Fayette County.

In January 2005, Judge Tarey Schell, presiding Juvenile Court Judge for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, decided that having a CASA program here was necessary to provide efficient advocacy for deprived children in our community, and a steering committee was developed to asses the need and to establish the basics of the program.

Just 11 months later, Advo-Kids CASA was in business. Tammi Barnett serves as its executive director which includes Fayette and Spalding counties.

To date, the program has produced 26 volunteers and has provided advocacy for 48 children.

The last class to be sworn in was this past March. Judge Schell, who retired in June, had the new volunteers swear that they understood the duties and responsibility of a CASA volunteer of the court and to pledge to perform those duties to the best of their ability. They also swore that their duties do not include the practice of law or the performance of services assigned to other agencies or professionals involved in a case.

They further pledged to act in good faith to advocate for the best interests of each child assigned; to remain objective yet caring and to make unbiased recommendations to the court; to keep all matters confidential and respect the privacy of all parties involved; and to follow through on all tasks required for each case assigned.

The classes are generally three hours long, twice a week, for five weeks. There are 30 hours of in-class training and 10 hours of court observation.

One might ask why people with paying jobs would want to put in more hours each week at no pay.

Here are some of the replies to that question from this latest class: Anita Jones said that while she is employed with the Fayette County Sheriff's Office, she has for some time worked in and around juvenile courts.

"It is a rewarding experience," she said, " when you are able to help someone who has been placed in the system and to see that you have made a significant difference. CASA volunteers speak on behalf of the children, making sure that their best interests are represented in the court at every stage of his or her case.

"The goals of Advo-Kids CASA is to see that all children thrive in a safe and permanent home."

Kimberley Bunch is an ordained minister and works as recruiter for an engineering firm. "I wanted to be a CASA volunteer to help children in need. My children are older and there are so many children that need love, affection and someone who cares,” she explained. “I care and I love them so I want to help them to be the best person that God has called them to be."

"Children are the world’s greatest asset, and they deserve every opportunity to become successful adults," said Crystal Barrett. "My hope as a CASA volunteer is to be a contributor in helping them find the road that leads to a happy and successful entrance into adulthood."

Alan Alig has earned a master of arts in counseling and clinical psychology and is in private practice. He is also a father who believes in and stands up for the rights of children and looks forward to his new advocacy role.

An Army daughter who has lived all over the world, Susan Meredith understands how displacement can bring insecurity and uncertainty. Although her own parents always made wherever they were living at the time as home, she remembers other children who were not so fortunate.

"At first," she said, "I had my doubts that I was qualified to do this important work and I spent a lot of time in prayer. I felt the push to continue and was encouraged by the directors of CASA.

"I think my preparation for this job began many years go as a young girl on an Army base who experienced community involvement at an early age and appreciated the kindness from the military communities who provided her family with a link to available resources. I hope I can be that link to make someone's life a little better, a little easier, a little more secure. I want the children assigned to me to know that I care and that I am there to help."

If you would like to respond to an important community need – its children – the next class will begin October 20.

Call Tammi Barnett or Elizabeth Hiatt at Advo-Kids CASA, 770-719-008. It is located at 150 Howard Lane, Fayetteville, 30215.

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