CASA seeks volunteers for Hot Spring County

By Wayne Bryan Published July 6, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Tonya Lee, Hot Spring County program coordinator for the Court Appointed Special Advocates for children, or CASA, stands in the courtroom of the county courthouse where she and volunteers work with children whose lives have become entangled in the legal system.

— Tonya Lee and the children of Hot Spring County need a group of adults to volunteer for something difficult. All it takes, she said, is time and compassion.

Lee, of Malvern, is the new program coordinator of the Court Appointed Special Advocates for children, or CASA, for Hot Spring County. The advocate program is also new to the 7th Judicial Circuit Court that meets in Malvern and Sheridan.

Right now, Lee oversees two special advocates, but she said she needs 25 volunteers to aid the 65 or so children who need their services in court every year in Hot Spring County.

“We work with dependent neglect cases where the children have been removed from the home,” Lee said. “We investigate the families and provide information to the courts that helps determine what’s best for the children.”

Incidents of abused, neglected and abandoned children are hard to hear about, especially if it happens within the community. So Lee said it can be hard to become involved in the lives of the children as their parents face legal charges, and custody issues go through the courts.

“We are a second set of eyes and ears for the courts,” Lee explained. “We gives reports to the court and are sometimes called up to testify.”

She said the special advocates also help the court find relatives who can take in and look after the children, either in a temporary situation, or the relatives might receive permanent custody.

To be a volunteer advocate with CASA, no legal background is required. Concern and being able to listen are the qualities that are most needed, Lee said.

“A special advocate does not have to be a lawyer or social worker,” she said. “They have to care about children and parents and be able to have good conversations with people. They need compassion for both children and parents because they are dealing with both and reporting to judges and attorneys. They must be able to talk with people.”

In addition, Lee said, volunteers need to have a flexible schedule to make court dates. She said most advocates have one case at a time.

One supporter of CASA’s mission is Judge Gary Arnold of the 22nd Circuit Court in Benton, who has worked with CASA volunteers in his court for some time.

He 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.”

Almost anyone can be a CASA volunteer and become the voice for the children in their community, Lee said.

“Many are retired, and some are stay-at-home moms,” she said. “Some work part time, and some do have full-time jobs but can be there when they are needed.”

She said many of the special advocates around the state are women, but she said there are also men, like Bob Rowe, who is one of two special advocates working with CASA at the courthouse in Malvern.

While the Hot Spring County CASA is forming, it is partnered with the Garland County CASA office in Hot Springs. Lee said as the Hot Spring County office gets established, it will expand to cover Grant County, which is also under the 7th Judicial Circuit Court.

Two training classes will be held in Malvern in the coming weeks to ready new volunteers. One class, Lee said, will be held on three Saturdays, starting July 19. Another class will meet three days in a row starting Aug. 6. Members of both classes will come to the courthouse to observe court cases on Aug. 11.

CASA volunteer caseworkers in Hot Spring County are sworn in by, and report to, Judge Eddy Easley, head of Division 2 of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court.

As of the beginning of the holiday weekend, Lee said, six people had signed up for the training. Lee had a booth at the recent Brickfest at Malvern City Park on June 28, when she told visitors about CASA’s mission and invited residents to volunteer.

“Twelve people expressed interest in becoming special advocates, and I have been talking with them this week,” Lee said. “The job is not for everybody, and I have said they should really give the idea some thought. People can even come to the first class, and if they think it is not for them, they can still drop out.”

She said even if people determine they do not want to be special advocates for the court, they can still support the program by getting the word out to the community, helping to raise funds or helping Lee at the office.

The new program coordinator of the CASA operation in Malvern admits she had never heard of CASA until representatives of the organization came to her office to join the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce. Lee was working as office manager for the chamber until she was named to the CASA post.

“I did not realize they were here or that a need existed for them,” she said. “I just assumed the children were taken care of by someone with the court. When they called, I knew this was an awesome opportunity, and after a night of praying about it, I jumped to join and get to work.”

While she organizes the operations of the CASA office and helps train the volunteers, she herself is not an advocate. As the administrator, she cannot be a member of the all-volunteer cadre of special advocates.

To sign up for training as a CASA special advocate, Hot Spring County residents can call Lee at (501) 467-3306 or contact her at tonyalee@7jdcasa.org.

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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