CASA: Giving children a voice

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child-abuse-online

Third in a series.

 

Not all child abuse cases result in the child being removed from the home. In fact, most now end with the family remaining intact. But making sure that all of the decisions made in court are best for the kids is not simple. 

Dominique Alexandre once worked as a family attorney but has since become an advocate supervisor for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) because she always wondered if she was doing the right thing for the kids.

“This way I get to represent the child and I am never on the wrong side,” Alexandre said.

“CASA is the voice of the child” is part of the mission statement of the organization that advocates for children in severe neglect and abuse cases in juvenile court. 

CASA was founded in 1982 in Seattle. The Peoria chapter was founded in July 2005. “CASA volunteers provide consistency to the children on their case, submit reports to the judge prior to all court hearings, and make certain that the child’s best interests are represented,” CASA says on its website, http://www.casapeoria.org/casa-about.html.

Terry Pyatt, a retired Peoria police officer who is now an advocate supervisor, said CASA holds the juvenile court system accountable but can only become involved when appointed by a judge. Once a case is appointed, CASA will then call upon one of its volunteers to become an advocate to the child or children in that case.

Volunteers come from all walks of life and anyone can become a CASA volunteer provided that they pass a background check and have no criminal record. They also cannot have a case pending before the court themselves. Volunteers are asked for a two-year commitment. Depending on the severity of a case, the duration can be longer or shorter.

“All you need is an open mind and a desire in your heart,” Pyatt said during a recent informational meeting for new and potential volunteers.

Volunteers must complete a 30-hour training process and sworn in by a judge before they can be assigned to a case. One to three children in a case is average.

Training sessions happen four times a year. During training volunteers will learn how to understand the major issues that most of the families are facing, including poverty, domestic violence and drug abuse. CASA also asks that volunteers gain 10 hours of additional training throughout the year. Deb Deeb, a CASA volunteer who is on her first case with five children, said additional training can include watching a one hour TV special on abuse.

In 2013, CASA of Peoria County served 185 kids aged newborn to 18. During the year 52 cases were closed, with 45 of them reaching the ultimate goal, family reunification, which is considered a happy ending.

Although many happy endings occur, figuring out how to prevent abuse and neglect to start with is always another focus. The factor that pops up most is poverty; most of the children brought into the foster care system are children who live in poverty.

Peoria not only has the issue of poverty but the population of poverty is heavily race disproportionate. CASA reports that 17 percent of Peoria’s population is African-American and yet 60 percent of the children in foster care are African-American.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t abuse happening in homes of other races and ethnicities, or in middle class and wealthier homes, Pyatt said. It just doesn’t get reported as much, he added.

Pam Perrilles, executive director of CASA of Peoria County, said the willingness to volunteer doesn’t mean CASA will be a good fit. A volunteer cannot allow religious differences or other issues get in the way. “You have to put aside your own prejudices so you can advocate for the child,” she said.

Luckily CASA is rarely in dire need of volunteers but the more volunteers the better, the agency said. It is always good to have people on hand whenever the need arises as there are about 1,000 pending cases pending.

A volunteer is a direct contact to the judge and is sworn in by the court, meaning they are not allowed to discuss any details with anyone, not even family members. Volunteers are to meet with the children in their case a minimum of one hour each month, report frequently to CASA supervisors and give a written report every six months to the court.

Deeb, who also has a full-time job, said it can get hectic scheduling the time to meet with the children but it’s wonderful and very rewarding. “You get to plan your own case,” she said.

“You will not look back and say I wish I hadn’t done that,” said another volunteer.

Some people worry about how safe it is to be involved in these cases but CASA assures them it would never let anyone be in harm’s way, Pyatt said. Volunteers said during the meeting that they’ve never been in danger or felt like they were in danger. In situations where a volunteer feels nervous visiting children at their home CASA will always send a supervisor along.

There is not a whole lot of interaction most of the time, volunteers agreed. Deeb said that it’s a lot of observation. “You slowly develop a relationship with the children but you’re mostly there to just sit and watch. You’re only there to advocate for the child,” she said.

“You become the child’s face, not only their voice,” Perrilles said. However, she added, CASA’s only mission is to advocate for the child in court and, during visits, to get the child to communicate. 

“One time I asked a child what he wanted me to tell the judge and he told me to he wanted me to tell him to have a happy birthday, and so that’s what I wrote in the report,” Alexandre recalled.

Volunteers have boundaries. The hardest thing is not being able to buy any gifts for the children or take them anywhere for fun once a relationship has formed. Volunteers are discouraged from giving birthday gifts and little toys, and even clothing or books of any kind.

There are other ways to support the children if one cannot or does not feel it is right for them to become a volunteer advocate. Anyone can choose to sponsor a child by donating $100 a month to aid a child. CASA also holds fundraisers throughout the year, including the CASA Golf Event that will take place at the Country Club of Peoria on Sept. 17. CASA’s most recognized fundraising event, CASAblanca, will be at the Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino on Nov. 1.

CASA, which is a United Way agency, relies strictly on the community for its funding. “We have no state budget and receive no government funding,” Perrilles said.

The organization requires money for the volunteer training and also for the salaries of the employees. One supervisor is needed for every 30 cases, she said.

CASA was formed and do the work that it does because “the kids deserve better,” Pyatt said.

“Kids learn from their surroundings. What they see and what they learn affects everyone, including society,” he said. “When there is a problem, you change the direction. The children need to learn that what they see isn’t the norm.”

Perrilles points out that “Society is more involved in children’s lives.” Keeping society so involved is almost imperative. When looking at the big picture, if a child can be helped and guided and if the cycle of violence can be broken, taxpayer’s money can be saved because the children can be kept out of the juvenile court system or even prison in the future.

Having at least one proper, caring role model in a child’s life can save society not only a lot of money but a lot of havoc, she added. “It can do wonders for a child’s self-esteem.”

“When a child realizes you are there because you want to be, that you are doing something for them without being paid, it really means a lot,” Deeb said.

She added there are times while working a case when she has wondered if she is making a difference. Then something will occur to make her realize that she is.

“It just seems like that are so many kids out there who don’t have a chance,” Deeb said. “But you just know you may write something (in a report) that gives them that chance.” 

Tomorrow: A look at a few of the agencies that deal first-hand with child abuse and neglect victims.

 

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