CASAs still needed for River Parishes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 13, 2005

They serve as the voices for abused and neglected children in court, but finding individuals to volunteer as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is a difficult task, officials say.

Child Advocacy Services has been administering the CASA program in the River Parishes for nearly a year with one goal in mind-serving as powerful voices for children. But, to date, there are only 10 trained CASAs in the three-parish area.

“Our biggest need is volunteers,” River Parishes Child Services Coordinator Mary Gibson said. “We need people who will commit to these children until they are in a safe place. So many people have let them down.”

In order to address the volunteer shortage, Child Advocacy Services will be offering a CASA training in the River Parishes in August.

For more information about becoming a CASA, contact Child Advocacy Services at (985) 652-8384 or (800) 798-1575.

Louisiana’s Office of Community Services (OCS) found that in fiscal year 2004, there were 13,241 valid cases of child abuse across the state. Of those cases, 224 were validated in the River Parishes (St. James, St. John and St. Charles).

There are 13 CASA programs across Louisiana. In 2004, the programs served a total of 3,109 children, with 1,153 of the children being permanently placed in safe homes, according to reports released by Louisiana CASA Association.

“We are very pleased to know that we saved these children, but it saddens me to know that there are thousands more out there who need our help just as much,” said John Wyble, Child Advocacy Services’ CEO. “We can only help those children with more committed volunteers.”

According to the Louisiana CASA Association, the time that a child spends in foster care is greatly reduced when a CASA is involved, with a cost of $1,700 per child as compared to the rate of nearly $10,000 per child in the state’s custody.

Generally, volunteers work with one case at a time. The CASA volunteer conducts an independent study of the situation by visiting the child.

Volunteers visit the home or foster care environment and spend one-on-one time with the children. The volunteer speaks with teachers and counselors in an effort to gather facts to present to the judge.

The volunteer is given access to the child’s complete file, so he or she is prepared before meeting the child, therefore, making this service to the child very confidential.

The CASA program began in Seattle, Wash., in 1977, by a judge who felt he was being asked to make momentous decisions affecting children’s lives with limited information. Now, the program has been implemented in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands.

CASA volunteers must be 21 years old or older and undergo 40 hours of training. They must submit to a background check, a personal interview and supply three letters of recommendation.

Child Advocacy Services is a non-profit agency which administers several programs to support and advocate for children. CAS serves Tangipahoa, Livingston, St. Helena, St Charles, Ascension, Assumption, St. James, St. John, East Feliciana and West Feliciana Parishes.

Last year, the agency’s volunteers placed over 70 children in permanent safe homes.

“It takes all of us, everyday people, to stand up and commit to making a meaningful difference in the lives of abused and neglect children,” said TV Judge Glenda Hatchett.

“And it starts very simply, with one volunteer at a time.”