Advocacy for abused children
Child abuse and neglect occurs in families from all income levels, regions and ethnicities.
It happens more often than is reported; but once a case has been established communities with a Court Appointed Special Advocates program step in to provide assistance.
Mississippi has seven communities where CASA volunteers are assigned a case by the court system help keep up with the status of a family. Currently there is no CASA program in Pearl River County, but one woman would like to see that change.
Jenny Gates works in Picayune, but lives in Harrison County, where she also participates in her home county’s CASA program. In her capacity as a CASA volunteer she said she visits the homes of families that have been to court for child neglect or abuse.
Her goal is to make one child’s life better.
“I just want to leave them in a better place than when I got there,” Gates said.
During the home visits Gates and other CASA volunteers look for signs of abuse or neglect, such as bruises, scratches and the availability of food in the home. Signs of suspected illegal drug usage is also noted if found, either through the observation of human behavior, or the possible presence of drug related paraphernalia. Gates said she also works with the parents to ensure they have all of the resources they need to provide for the children, such as food stamps.
CASA volunteers are usually assigned to cases dealing with children between a month to 15-years-old, but some cases can entail children as old as 18.
In Harrison County there are twice as many cases of child abuse than any other in Mississippi, Gates said.
Harrison County’s CASA program is funded through grants and donations.
Gates, who has been an advocate for the past year, said most volunteers are assigned one or two cases at maximum to prevent them from burning out. The volunteer work involves about eight hours a month, since most advocates have full time careers.
Most first year volunteers are assigned cases that involve minor neglect or abuse, such as a child being left in a car or home alone. Gates said she has worked some physical abuse cases where she was tasked with checking on the children.
After each assignment she writes a report of her observations and provides it to the judge. Most of the time CASA volunteers provide reports of positive findings, which Gates feels reflects the program’s ability to make a difference.
Training to become a CASA volunteer is required, and includes sessions with law enforcement officials on what to look for and presentations by psychologists. The training takes about 10 weeks and entails two sessions per week, typically in the evenings. Volunteers are also trained on what to look for concerning drug use and manufacture. Continued training occurs twice a year.