By Sabrina Westfall
The Knox County CASA program has been active in the community for nearly three decades, and over time has grown to help more children who have been abused or neglected.
CASA Director Dena Held explained the Court Appointed Special Advocates program is reliant on volunteers.
“It’s a volunteer-based program where individuals step up to learn about how to become an advocate for children who have suffered abuse or neglect. It’s where an individual takes passion for children and learns how to turn that into advocacy for the children who sometimes fall through the cracks of the child welfare system,” Held said.
Last quarter there were 70 youth served by CASA volunteers. The bad news, Held noted, is that left 65 Knox County youth without a volunteer to help them through the court proceedings and basic needs.
“If children suffer abuse or neglect and we don’t respond to that, and we don’t show other ways in that there are other choices – that that’s not a cycle that has to continue – we wouldn’t like that outcome. CASA is about breaking that cycle of abuse and neglect, showing other options, of being supportive of our court system to make the best possible decisions for the child – or sibling group, whatever it may be. It’s a way to really get in there and make an impact,” Held said.
An important aspect of the volunteer’s relationship with the youth is the ability to put the situation the child is facing aside and focus on the needs of the child as an individual.
“We look at the whole child. Not just the incident of abuse or neglect,” Held said.
Often times the children are taken out of a home due to allegations of abuse or neglect in a hurry for the safety of the child or children. Held said this can mean important personal items can be left behind. The volunteer can serve as the voice to get those important items, like a blanket or clothing.
“Sometimes those pieces that are important to the children get overlooked because of the urgent nature of the other pieces, so the CASA volunteer can get involved and pick out those pieces, and ask the kids, ‘What’s going on? What do you think? What do you need?’” Held explained.
Held said the national average of volunteers to spend with the youth is 10 hours per month, but that amount of time can vary drastically not only from case to case, but month to month.
Before becoming a volunteer, the applicant must go through an intensive screening process. Regulations including a minimum age of 21-years-old, must pass a background check and their motivations are looked at. Volunteers have to be deemed a “good fit” for the program, Held said.
“We never want to add any trauma or add any confusion to a situation that is already a crisis,” Held said.
In addition, Held said it is important to ensure the volunteers are capable of handling the cases.
“These are emotional situations. There has been abuse or neglect – or at least the allegation of such – so to be able to handle it takes a strong person that’s well-equipped to understand and be able to keep boundaries, be emotionally stable theirself, and be able to work with that criteria,” Held explained.
She said there have been some cases in the past where the staff has talked to volunteers about reconsidering their interest in becoming a volunteer because they have restraints, such as time.
After being deemed a good fit for the program, volunteers go through a 30 hour training and are sworn in by Superior Court I Judge Tim Crowley.
“Once a volunteer becomes sworn in, they are not obligated to take that first case,” Held noted.
Several factors are taken into consideration before a case is assigned, including with what the volunteer is comfortable. Those factors can include the age the volunteer is more comfortable in order to ensure the volunteer can handle the case to the best of their ability.
As cases are assigned, the CASA staff – which includes Held, Holly Hillenbrand and Mary Miller – work with the volunteers through the duration of the case. New volunteers can also be paired with seasoned volunteers as mentors if necessary.
“We don’t just hand you a case and say, ‘See you later. Let us know down the road’. It’s not like that at all,” Held said.
Held said the the first step to becoming a volunteer is learning more about the program. Potential volunteers can do so by contacting the CASA office at 812-886-4470 or visiting www.childadvocatesnetwork.org.
Held added the program is heavily supported by the community through fundraisers and partnerships. They annually host a golf scramble and this year partnered with the Fraternal Order of Police for a motorcycle ride.
The CASA program is also a United Way Partner Agency and is supported by the Knox County Community Foundation, among other agencies, businesses and individuals.
“It is a testament to the community that we value children, and we know that’s the foundation. If we don’t keep supporting the foundation and meet those basic needs, what’s our future going to look like?” Held said.
Note: This story is the first part in a series leading up to Friday’s swearing in of new volunteers. Check back later this week for testimonials from volunteers.