You actually can help these kids

Published 6:23 pm Wednesday, July 25, 2007

“One of the scariest moments for children whose future lies in the hands of the court is their appearance before the judge.

“Think about it for a moment. A judge is an adult who children have only seen and heard on television, where a judge is a person who sends bad people to jail. Frequently children are afraid that they are going to jail because they think they are somehow responsible for the upheaval in their family,” said Felicity Peck, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer in Davidson County.

Abused and neglected children have not had stability in their life, nor have they had very many adults they can trust. A social worker or someone from Mississippi Department of Family and Child Services removes the afflicted child from his home and sometimes from his siblings, puts him in a foster care or group home and then the next time the child sees that person is usually in court because this isn’t the only child the social worker has.

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Peck explains what CASA volunteerism entails, “That volunteer’s job is not only to investigate the circumstances of the child’s family life in order to advocate in their best interest, but also to gain the trust and confidence of the children. It is especially important that the CASA volunteer has the confidence of older children, because sometimes the CASA volunteer is the only constant figure in the children’s lives. Attorneys, case managers and occasionally judges change before a child is in a safe, stable and permanent home.”

A youth court judge in Hancock County heard about the CASA program in place in Jackson and in Forrest County in 1989 and requested CASA due to the success of the program. It was administered by Children First, Inc. which was an agency in Jackson. Administering the program from the center of the state proved too costly and problematic, so it was closed down.

Judge Robin Gibson of Hancock County requested the program again and in 2000, the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse wrote a grant through a start-up proposal. National CASA awarded them the grant and in July of 2000, CASA became a reality with Laurie Johnson as program director. She was there for three years, then left to take the CASA executive director’s position for the state of Mississippi.

Johnson tells how a CASA volunteer impacted the life of a little boy and his brother, “One particular child, who was nine years old, came to the court as a child in need of supervision due to allegations that he was truant at school and was getting into fights. His 12 year old brother was already committed to the training school.

“Judge Gibson felt that something was going on in the home but there wasn’t enough evidence to remove the younger boy from his mother’s custody. She assigned a CASA volunteer to the boy and the advocate began visiting the family. After a thorough assessment and a couple of weeks of monitoring, the advocate believed that the mother was involved in illegal drug activity but had no proof to provide to the Judge. However, the information gathered from the mother and the child was enough for the volunteer to recommend a drug screen at the next hearing.

“The mother tested positive for cocaine and the child was removed from the home at that time. Had the volunteer not gathered so much information, the mother might have continued to use the illegal drugs and the child’s behavior would have surely worsened. The younger boy missed his brother terribly and asked the volunteer to allow him to speak to him by phone whenever possible.

“The volunteer also discovered that he had never eaten fruit which prompted a visit to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed him with some vitamin deficiencies and the advocate was able to work with the shelter and later the foster parent to ensure that the boy was getting adequate nutrients in his diet.

“They also found a tutor to work with him at school and his grades began to improve almost immediately. Likewise, his brother’s grades improved at training school and his behaviors improved so that he was released on time.

“After intervention, and the mother’s subsequent failure to stay clean, the child and his brother were placed in permanent care in another county. They received outpatient mental health care, tutoring, and support from their new family. They both attended school regularly, stayed out of training school, and have gone on to attend state colleges here in Mississippi.”

If reunification isn’t possible as in the above case, the advocate will be the extra set of eyes and ears searching for a permanent place, working in conjunction with MDHS and the guardian ad litem.

“This ensures the child will be released from DHS custody in a timely manner whenever possible,” Johnson said. “Children who have a CASA also tend to receive more resources and services as there is one person constantly looking out for opportunities to present to the child and/or the family. It all comes down to the fact that the volunteer is able to focus on just one or two cases rather than 50 to 100.”

Pearl River County does not have a CASA program in place. We do have guardian ad litems (GAL), who perform a similar service, and are usually attorneys. However, attorneys have large case loads, and by the nature of their business cannot spend time exclusively with one family as a CASA can.

According to national statistics, a child who has a CASA volunteer has a much better chance at permanency in a shorter period of time. Permanency means stability in the child’s life in a permanent home, either back with his parents or being adopted.

Social workers have a burdensome case load in Mississippi according to a Child Welfare League of America study conducted by Charlene Ingram and Sue Steib. That document is available for viewing on the MDHS website located at

A CASA volunteer focuses on one child or one family of children, at the most two families. Therefore, a child will spend less time in foster care because follow-up with the parents is more frequent.

Thirty years ago, a Seattle judge acknowledged the fact that abused and neglected children needed advocates who would be watch dogs for their rights and their benefit in court. The program worked so well, other judges across the country began appointing volunteer advocates for children. The US Congress passed the Victims of Child Abuse Act in 1990 which further promoted the CASA program.

National CASA and CASA Mississippi has an approved training program which involves 30 hours of initial training and 12 hours of additional training in-service each year. The training includes child development, child abuse and neglect, the youth court laws, diversity and cultural consideration, family dynamics, resources, report writing and maintaining records, and the like. If the volunteer cannot attend classes, then there is an in-home training curriculum called an Independent Study Edition. Many programs require a certain amount of courtroom observation which is also included in the 30 hours of training. After that, the volunteer is sworn in by the judge.

Nationally, there are 50,000 CASA volunteers. However, according to an article in the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ report “Juvenile and Family Justice TODAY”,

“Most recently, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care’s final report recommends an expansion of CASA as an important resource for courts and children. Yet, most judges have noted the insufficient number of volunteers to meet the need generated by court caseloads.” For more information on that visit

The article notes that children relegated to foster care are more likely to have serious medical problems. For instance, “80 percent of foster care children have been prenatally exposed to substance abuse,” the article states. Add to that, this exposure often results in behavior and learning problems compounded by exposure to their parents’ addictions to drugs and alcohol and domestic violence. A CASA volunteer can help recognize the needs of the child quickly and help secure medical care earlier.

CASAs are so often the supporting link in the foster care chain of the court, case worker, caregiver and service providers.

Johnson explains why there are so few CASAs in Mississippi,

“Many people are interested in volunteerism, but would rather spend a day building a home for Habitat than spend 30 hours training and a year committed to a child. It really comes down to two factors, I think – time and the fear that this work is too hard. People consider child abuse to be one of those things that they hope isn’t happening in their neighborhood. When they find out that it is, they want to do something but they don’t think they can handle working with the child because it will be too sad. What they don’t realize is that these children do so well with a CASA that things almost immediately begin to turn around for them. Even if things don’t improve quickly and dramatically, their lives have been changed by virtue of the fact that they finally have an adult in their lives that supports them, believes them, and keeps their promises. That stability in itself is remarkable to a child who has never had anything constant in their lives. If more people could see how easy it is to make a difference, I believe they wouldn’t think it was such hard work after all.”

This type of work isn’t for everyone. It takes a very special kind of person to devote time and energy to an abused or neglected child, Johnson added. “Sometimes the system moves slowly and advocates feel as though things should go one way rather than another. There are constraints around the law that frustrate the volunteer advocates.”

However, permanence is usually achieved more quickly with a CASA. Deeper benefits to the community go far beyond that. CASAs save the county and the state enormous sums. There are brighter futures for the children because more of them finish school and pursue higher education which ensures each child to be a benefit to the community. The judge, the guardian ad litem and MDHS all benefit because they receive more in-depth information than a social worker loaded with 50 to 100 cases could provide. One other benefit, Johnson adds, is the value people give back to their community. Making a profound difference in a child’s life is a priceless gift to the child and to the community. “It is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can experience,” she said.

Youth court judge, Richelle Lumkin just this week wrote a letter of support for a CASA program in Pearl River County. For more information, or to volunteer, call Laurie Johnson at 877-309-CASA (2272), email Or you can visit