CASA – Is Helping The Children Of Wilson County

You are standing before a Judge in a court of law while he tries to determine where you and your little sister should spend the next 8 or so years of your life.  You haven’t done anything wrong… 

You are standing before a Judge in a court of law while he tries to determine where you and your little sister should spend the next 8 or so years of your life.  You haven’t done anything wrong.  Seriously, what could you have done in your short 10 years to have reckoned this fate?  You are surrounded by attorneys and child services workers pleading the cases of the parties they represent.  Everyone is throwing out words like “stipulate” and “permanency plan.”  Next to you is a man or a woman that comes to see you quite often and asks you questions about your life and what you want for your future.  The Judge finally looks at the person next to you and says, “What does CASA think?”

The whole scene is pretty scary, but you’ve been through worse.  It was scarier the night they came to get you.  You were both on the front porch, you and your baby sister.  Mom was having a party and she always made the two of you stay on the front porch when she was having a party.  Sometimes, you stayed there all night.  It was getting pretty late.  You had watched all the neighbors’ lights go off, one by one and now the whole neighborhood was dark.  Your little sister was asleep in your lap when they first rolled up.  She was light as a feather and could fall asleep anywhere, always so tired. At least she had stopped crying about being hungry.  They arrested everyone in the house and took them away in police cars.  You and your sister ended up in your foster home. 

Standing in front of this Judge is pretty scary, and that night when they came to get you was scarier, but nothing is as scary as what you know is going to happen, what still keeps you awake every night.  What is my momma going to do to me when she gets out of jail?

It is hard to stomach that children must and do endure this kind of life in Wilson County but it is a daily reality.  The docket of the Wilson County Juvenile Court is chocked full of cases like this, some even worse.  The Judge in the courtroom, the Honorable Barry Tatum and many of the local attorneys in court have a passion for helping these families.

The CASA is an appreciated volunteer.  He or she knew nothing of this child or the family’s circumstances, but stepped in to help in any way possible. 

Wilson County CASA is a non-profit organization under the direction of 15 volunteer board members and 2 full time employees.  There are, on average, 40 volunteer advocates.  Laura Swanson, Executive Director has worked with CASA since 2004.  She had worked in other social service arenas, but jumped at the chance to work with CASA when the job became available.  “I took a pay cut to take the job at CASA and was more than happy to do it,” Laura remembers. “I knew that working with CASA was what I wanted to do with my life.”  Amy Harris, Program Coordinator, has been with this CASA office since early 2008, but became involved with CASA, first as a volunteer and then as employee, in South Carolina. “I want to make a difference for the future, and I feel the most rewarding place to start is with children,” Amy says.  “Through CASA, we can stop the destructive cycle that passes from generation to generation.”

Wilson County CASA is just one of 950 CASA programs nationwide and is a United Way Agency.  About $75,000 of the $125,000 budget is funded by United Way as well as state and local grants.  The remainder comes from various fund raising efforts and individual kindnesses. 

On July 25, WC CASA held its bi-annual dinner and fundraiser termed FUNDNITE.  Tickets to the dinner were $100 per couple, and each couple had one entry in the hat for a $10,000 drawing, as part of a reverse raffle.

This year, the 5 people elected to split the prize, each walked away with $2,000.  In addition to the reverse raffle, there was also a silent auction full of valuable prizes like round trip air fare from Southwest Airlines.  All in all, the event netted over $18,000 for Wilson County CASA. 

CASA is an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocate.  The arrangement of words certainly makes for a better acronym than an explanation. Simply put, the CASA volunteer speaks for the child.  When a child comes into Juvenile Court because of allegations of neglect or abuse by a parent or caregiver, every party to the case has an attorney, including the child.  Some cases, at the Judge’s discretion, are also appointed a CASA volunteer.  A practicing attorney may have 20 or more cases at any given time.  A CASA usually has just one child or family of children to learn about, understand and advocate for in the court system.  That individualized attention to a previously victimized child in a complicated situation is invaluable to the court and the child.   Aside from the psychological benefit afforded the child and the extra set of eyes and ears for the Court, the CASA program is quite cost effective for taxpayers.  The average length of stay for a child in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is 711 days.  With a CASA on board, the average stay in custody is reduced to 310 days and those children served by a CASA volunteer are less likely to re-enter the welfare system by half. The CASA website reports, “Since 1987, Wilson County CASA volunteers have provided advocacy for more than 600 children. In 2008, 39 CASA volunteers provided more than 1,400 hours of volunteer time serving 76 of Wilson County’s most defenseless children.”  Judge Tatum sums it up by saying, “There are a lot of worthy non-profits out there, but with CASA, you can actually see first hand results every day.”

On average, a volunteer advocate will spend 8 to 12 hours a month working with their case.  There are a lot of phone calls, email correspondences, and the occasional court appearance.  On the outset of a case, the volunteer may spend more than the average just learning about the facts and getting to know all the parties involved.  Over time, the hours can lessen to 2 or 3 per month.  All advocates are required to visit with their child, face to face, at least once a month, if not more often.  “Eyes on the child,” is Amy Harris’ mantra.   As volunteers, advocates are offered cases, but never required to take them.  “Sadly, there are plenty of cases to go around, and we could certainly use more volunteers, but if one of our advocates does not feel comfortable with a certain case, they are free to pass on it.  My mission is to find the best advocate for each child.” Amy Harris says.   Lorraine Heyworth, CASA volunteer for 3 years says it this way, “Being a CASA is not so much about the commitment of your time as it is the commitment of your heart.  I just think these children need the extra attention because of everything in their lives that is wrong. A CASA seems to know how to make things right.”  

Devotion to victimized children is the hallmark of the CASA organization.  “Some of these children may have to change foster homes a number of times during the process.  The CASA gives the child continuity,” Kevin Davenport, CASA volunteer since 2008 says.  “The stability and love that the CASA offers creates a great situation for the child’s continued growth, even during a difficult time.”  In exchange for this care, volunteers get absolutely nothing by capitalistic standards, but everything by most of the standards that really matter, which leads me to my own story.

I have wanted to be a writer since I was 16.  I went to a fine southern university and majored in British and American Literature and dreamed of working my craft into fortune and maybe even fame.  Four years later, I graduated with a trunk full of student loans and an urgent need to find a more reliable vehicle than writing.  Living requires that you do what you can but there is always hope that someday life will allow you to do what you love.  I’ve done quite a bit of writing throughout the years but it turns out I’m not so good at getting published, so I’d give it up periodically.  If you have a passion in your life, you understand that no matter how much water you throw on that kind of fire, it never seems to burn out. 

It is late summer, 2008.  My husband and I make our living in real estate and construction.  Suffice to say, my family knew we were in a recession before the FED did.  Things got tough for everyone in our lines of work and they got tough quickly.  We have three children at home and two of them are teenagers so cash flowing out of our house was not about to slow down even though the economy was.   Whenever you feel like you are drowning, reach out of the water.  That’s what I did.  I reached out to become a volunteer at CASA.  It really didn’t make a lot of sense at the time to anyone else, but somehow it did to me and besides, I found that I had a lot of free time on my hands.

I went through the training and got my first case which happened to be an extremely interesting and diverse family.  Sometime during the training they told us that we were going to have to write court reports.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, until it came time for me to write my first one.  I approached it in the same way I approach any writing project, with great passion.  The life histories of these children lent themselves to constructing a great story and I wanted to tell it well.  The flame was suddenly reignited and now I had an audience, small though it was, that appreciated my work.  After a sizeable span of writer’s block, the energy and affirmation boosted me to start writing my second novel.  For a frustrated writer, what could be better?  

One day while appearing in court for my CASA case, I sat next to Angel Kane, a local attorney, who is also one of the founders of the Wilson Living Magazine.  I wanted to ask her if I could write for Wilson Living Magazine, but didn’t.   A few months and a number of well received court reports later, I broached the question to Angel by email.  I learned long ago that “no” was not as big a word in print as in person.  Her answer, which you have already figured out, was yes and my first assignment:  write an article about CASA, that organization that had reignited my passion for writing in the first place.  I had come full circle.

Let me say, the passion or even ability to write is certainly not a requirement of a CASA volunteer.  Laura Swanson and Amy Harris are there to help in whatever area a volunteer may feel weak.  The only requirement is a commitment to do the next right thing in whatever way one feels empowered.  Volunteers in CASA have open hearts and unrelenting resolve to manifest the best possible destiny for the child or children in their care. 

Since becoming a CASA volunteer, I have had 4 children from 2 different families in my care, all of which have enriched my life.  CASA has not changed my circumstances.  The recession continues along with all the insecurity and anxiety it produces.  CASA has, however, made a change in me.  I am still a wife, a mother, and a businesswoman, but today, along with being a CASA, I am happy to say I am also a writer.  I was looking to reach out and ended up finding myself. 

If you would like to learn more about Wilson County CASA, visit the website at www.WilsonCountyCasa.org or call the office at 443-2002.  The next training class is scheduled for September 22, 2009.

Diana Haines can be reached at dianahaines@rocketmail.com

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