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CASA: Volunteer to make a difference

In Pearl River County, the Mississippi Department of Human Services reports there were 642 reported cases of child abuse and neglect in 2008. Not one of those children had a court appointed special advocate and there is only one state investigator to cover two counties worth of child abuse reports.

These facts attributed to the formation of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Pearl River County, Inc., or CASA-PRC, Inc. This start-up program is supported by Family Court Judge Richelle Lumpkin, who called together MDHS and CASA board president Kim Mittelstaedt and executive director, Gina Burgess so information could be pooled for a program development grant. Burgess wrote the grant and submitted it to National CASA in February, and it was awarded to local CASA on April 1. The funding will be instrumental in developing a volunteer force to help give a voice to abused and neglected children. The main focus will be to recruit and train volunteers to advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected children in the court system, and the vision is every child in a safe, and loving permanent home.

Laurie Johnson, CASA executive director for the state of Mississippi, 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 a training school.

“Judge Robin 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 volunteer 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.”

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 Web site located at www.mdhs.state.ms.us.

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, 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.

CASA-PRC, Inc., is a 501(c)3, and is a provisional member of National CASA. The local program is searching for volunteers to help these children. If you would like to help, or you know someone who would like to help, please contact Gina Burgess at glburgess@gmail.com or 601-798-3298 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., or go to CASA-PRCinc.giving.officelive.com