Court-Appointed Advocates For Children Finding Ways To Connect
This story is part of a WKMS News series highlighting organizations and groups helping others amid the pandemic.
Court-appointed volunteers with a western Kentucky nonprofit organization have struggled to build bonds with the children they serve due to COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. But perseverance resulted in creativity as they managed to continue to serve as a ‘constant’ in the children’s lives.
Kelly Cox, Volunteer Coordinator and Trainer at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Graves and Southwest Kentucky said the national CASA program was started back in 1977, by a judge in Seattle.
“The reason he got it started was, he realized that he's making all these life altering decisions for children and families, and he just felt like he didn't have enough adequate information to make such decisions,” she explained. “So he came up with a little pilot program where he trained ordinary people to become an advocate for the voice for a child. And so that's how it got started.”
During the ongoing pandemic, officials with the CASA of Graves and Southwest KY and CASA of West KY say it’s been challenging for their volunteers to build a bond with children over Facetime, Zoom or phone calls and harder for them to assess the situations when they could not go into the homes.
Janie Criner, Executive Director at CASA of West Kentucky, said her volunteers weren’t accepting limited in-person access as a hurdle they couldn’t overcome.
“We had CASAs that were just going and standing in the yard and trying to have conversations, from the yard to the porch, just so they could see them in-person and have some sort of contact with them.”
Those in-person encounters are truly what helps build the bond between the CASA and the child, and these volunteers stand as a stable person in the children's lives, Cox said. She also said they represent the child in court, speaking up “for what’s in the best interest for the abused, neglected and dependent children in the court system.”
According to Criner, the statewide number of court cases decreased by 43% and she believes that’s the result of fewer educators being able to directly interact and report abuse. “With eyes on them, teachers and educators are the number one reporters of abuse and with kids being stuck at home, their safety net was gone,” she added.
Criner said the bond between a CASA volunteer and the child they’re serving is vital and valuable, because often that CASA is the only adult who stays with them through the entire process.
“The child may move from foster home to foster home, we have kids that have been in upwards of five or more foster homes, but they've had the same CASA the whole time,” Criner explained.
Cox said, “Social workers may change, their attorneys may change, their foster homes may change, but their CASA is always the same person until that case closes.”
Cox said the CASA program also aims to help the families of the children in the program. She said if the parent(s) are actively seeking help and showing initiative in bettering themselves, CASA will help point them in the direction of resources for that assistance.
Criner said the initial endgame plan for each child begins the same: returning to a safe and healthy home with the family from whom they were removed.
“The goal is always to try to reunify the child with their biological parents. Research shows, that's always in the best interest of the child when it can be a safe environment, a safe nurturing environment,” she explained.
Cox noted one of the questions CASAs ask of children is where they want to live. She said sometimes the response is outlandish, like moving to the moon or setting up shop in Disneyland. But often, she said, the children want to go back to the home from where they were removed.
“It doesn't matter what type of abuse a child has gone through, they still love their parents,” she added.
Criner said CASA also assists with children who are near aging out of the care system. She said they offer special training classes with teams called, ‘fostering futures’ to prepare those children for the transition into adulthood.
Another hurdle the CASAs faced, even before the pandemic struck-- they always need more volunteers.
Cox said, “A lot of people are kind of afraid sometimes to work with child abuse and neglect children because it's something that people really don't want to talk about. But it's a reality. And it's happening every day here in our communities.”
Criner said anyone can become a volunteer, and they need a variety of people from all walks of life.
“We need all kinds of people. There's not a particular type of volunteer that we're looking for, anybody can do it. All ages, male, female, just have to have that dedication and have an interest in helping children and families in our community.”
Regarding how volunteers are paired with the children they serve, Cox said she and her director will sit in on the Zoom court hearing and listen to the potential cases. They first choose ‘top priority cases,’ then try to match the volunteer to the child based on expertise and background.
For example, Cox said, if a child is having truancy issues, Graves has a volunteer who is a retired teacher; if a child has medical issues or the case involves sexual assault, they have retired and current doctors and nurses who understand medical terminology and treatment when talking to medical staff.
Cox and Criner agreed the volunteers deserve appreciation for all the time and effort they put into these cases.
Cox said, “It's so good, and so heartwarming, to see such like minded individuals who have a passion for kids. And they're so dedicated to the children that they serve. And we are lucky here in Graves, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton to have such amazing, awesome volunteers.”
Both offices also put in extra, special efforts to help the children with whom they work feel remembered and cherished. Both do fundraisers and events to collect toys for all ages that they serve. Not to mention, people like to donate toys year-round as well.
Criner mentioned the ‘birthday closet’ as one of those extra, special things they offer the children to show love. And it’s another facet of the service that relies on the volunteers’ and community’s support.
“If it's a child's birthday, they can come here and pick out a gift. We put together at Christmas, we did stockings and had their names embroidered on them. And the CASA volunteers got to come and fill it with toys that we had.”
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer has the opportunity in the coming months. CASA of Graves county has summer training classes opening up July 24 from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information go tocasagravesswky.org. CASA of West Kentucky is holding an intensive week-long CASA Academy training for volunteers the week of June 14-18. For more information call their office at 270-443-1440 or apply online at childwatchcac.org.