Saline County needs more child advocates

By Wayne Bryan Published April 3, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

The Saline County Court Appointed Special Advocates office is looking for men and women who are willing to take the challenge of being involved as an extra set of eyes and ears in the courtroom and whose only priority is the children. Linda Norman, CASA advocate supervisor, shown above, said there are only 11 volunteer advocates in Saline County and that the organization needs twice that number.

Incidents of abused, neglected and abandoned children are hard to hear about, especially if it happens close to home.

So it must be even harder to become involved in the lives of the children as their parents face legal charges, and custody issues go through the courts. Yet the Saline County office of Court Appointed Special Advocates is looking for men and women who are willing to take the challenge of being involved as an extra set of eyes and ears in the courtroom and whose only priority is the children.

“We have 11 volunteer advocates in Saline County,” said Linda Norman, CASA advocate supervisor. “We need twice as many. We now have 13 cases involving 25 children, and we hope more people will step up to help us.”

Saline County CASA will hold classes to train new advocates starting Monday. Norman, who has been the CASA supervisor in Benton for three years, said volunteers can sign up for the classes as late as Saturday.

“They need to call me, fill out an application, and there is a quick background check,” she said. “Child abuse doesn’t take weekends off, so I don’t, either.”

Judge Gary Arnold of the 22nd Circuit Court in Benton said the advocates he works with give the court a different point of view in cases involving children.

“It is a nonlegal perspective of what’s in the child’s best interest,” he said. “Sometimes during a case, the children can almost get lost in the framework of due process. CASA sees things differently and helps all of us get a better view of the children and their families.”

Advocates become the voice of the child and provide the court with a more intimate insight into the families and children involved in cases of abuse and neglect.

“The mission of CASA in the county is to provide trained volunteers to safeguard the best interests of the children in dependency-neglect cases,” Norman said. “The advocates provide factual information to guide the decisions made on [the children’s] behalf.”

The classes will be held on three Mondays this month: this Monday, April 21 and 28. The mornings will be spent observing court sessions in Judge Arnold’s court.

“Mondays are always for dependency and neglect cases,” the judge said. “Those hearings are not open to the public, only to the lawyers, the advocates and the immediate family. It is one of the few times the hearings are not open to everyone.”

On the afternoons of those Mondays, the advocate trainees will learn about CASA, child abuse and neglect laws in Arkansas, and the roles of the juvenile courts. The trainees will also learn about stress that some families face and the impact of domestic violence and substance abuse, and be taught communication techniques for dealing with children and conflict.

“The training consists of 30 hours of training and 10 hours of court observation,” Norman said. “The time commitment involved after training is from five to 20 hours per month. We ask for a one-year commitment, and they work one case at a time.”

Currently, the team of volunteer advocates in Saline County are all women, but Norman said there have been men advocates.

“We have a good mix of people,” she said. “We have some professional people, some folks who have retired and some who are stay-at-home mothers who want to be involved in helping children through hard times.”

While CASA volunteers deal with the problems of neglect and abuse, Norman said, she has never had a volunteer quit because he or she could not handle the job.

“The circumstances are heartbreaking,” she said. “However, it is heart-mending when you can make a difference in a child’s life for when they go to a forever home.”

Preparing for court in Benton on Monday morning, Kim Godfrey, an attorney ad litem, or children’s attorney, with the Supreme Court of Arkansas administrative office of the courts, said CASA volunteers are invaluable for her work in making sure that what happens to the children involved in a case is in their best interests.

“The CASA workers are a tremendous help in getting us police records and other information we don’t have time to collect and review,” Godfrey said. “We talk with CASA volunteers and go on visits with them to see the families and share our concerns. They often offer fresh new perspectives from outside the legal profession.”

Norman has worked with CASA for 16 years. She was a volunteer first in Fort Worth, Texas, and she spent five years in Garland County before coming to Saline County as supervisor. She said she will step back from that position this summer and become a volunteer once again.

The new volunteer supervisor in the county will be Pam Davis, who has been a CASA volunteer in Pulaski County and a foster parent in Saline County for the past year.

“She has a great heart for children,” Norman said.

To become a CASA volunteer, call Norman at (501) 538-4217 through Saturday for more information or an application.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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