The Times West Virginian

Opinion

December 22, 2013

CASA volunteers help abused and neglected children have voice in court

Silence can’t be tolerated.

Abused and neglected children, way too often, don’t have the voice they need to make their lives better.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Marion County are committed to changing that situation.

The goal in the state is “to assure quality volunteer advocacy for every abused/neglected child in the West Virginia court system.”

The national volunteer movement 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 judge wanted the detailed information he needed to safeguard the children's best interests and ensure that they were placed in safe, permanent homes as quickly as possible.

Getting committed, well-trained volunteers is critical for the success of CASA, and four Marion County residents joined the program last week. Charlotte Anderson, Donna Blaney, Tenille Wyer and Cheryl Wilmoth took their oaths in Marion Circuit Court Judge David R. Janes’ courtroom at the Marion County Courthouse.

Janes appreciates the work of the volunteers.

“You are the voice of the children,” he said. “I rely greatly on you all as well as the other witnesses in the process. I’m a firm believer that when everyone does their job and works independently, then all the pieces will come together.”

Kim Baker, director of CASA, knows how much volunteers are needed.

“There are cases waiting on CASA,” she said. “Unfortunately, in Marion County we do not have enough volunteers for all the cases on the court’s docket.”

Before volunteers with the organization act as the voice of abused and neglected children who are involved in the court system, they go through more than 30 hours of training and several background checks.

Then, once they are sworn in,  they receive the cases they will be working on.

Baker said volunteers start by doing an independent assessment of what is in the best interest of the child they are working with.

“That’s what they’re trained to do, to advocate on the behalf of the child in the courtroom,” she said. “They’re the bridge of communication for what the child’s needs are to the other professionals. They’re a support system.”

Volunteers will do everything from talking with the child’s neighbor or teacher to visiting with the child throughout the experience. They will also talk to the child about how they’re feeling and advocate for them.

“They get to know everyone who is involved in the case and talk with everyone involved,” Baker said.

Baker said the benefits of having CASA volunteers working with children is that their only focus is on the particular child.

“The volunteers have made a commitment to that child until he or she has found a permanent living situation,” she said. “Our CASAs only have one case at a time; they’re easily accessible to get that child’s needs met.”

Wilmoth said that she wants to be the voice for children who don’t have one in the court system.

“There are kids whose parents really don’t stand up for or care for them,” she said. “Some don’t advocate for their child, and I felt like I wanted to stand in that gap for kids who need someone to speak out for them.”

Do you want to help children get the assistance they deserve? There are no special educational or professional requirements, but advocates must be 21 years old. CASA of Marion County, located at 112 Adams St., Room 203-A, Fairmont, can be contacted at 304-366-4198 or through mccasa@wvdsl.net.

Silence from abused or neglected children in the court system simply can’t be tolerated.

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