CASA stands up for county’s children in neglect cases

By Wayne Bryan Published July 17, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Pam Davis, the new program coordinator for CASA in Saline County, is calling for volunteers to serve as court-appointed special advocates for children in cases of abandonment, abuse or neglect. She said it will take 35 volunteers to have enough advocates for the 75 to 80 children who go through the 22nd Circuit Court in Benton in a year.

BENTON — If it were a regular job, the Help Wanted advertisement might look like this: Volunteer wanted to sit in a courtroom and act as the eyes and ears for the children involved in cases of abuse, abandonment and neglect. No legal training needed.

Requirements: Able to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in courtrooms and in clients’ homes. An ability to listen and deal with children and adults facing serious problems that may be outside your comfort zone.

Expectations: A sense of involvement that is sure to be emotionally draining.

Salary: No money, but you’ll have the opportunity to have a positive, life-changing impact on local families seeking a better future.

Pam Davis, program coordinator for the Saline County office for Court Appointed Special Advocates, said the job is not for everyone, but she hopes new volunteers will sign up to help children make it through some tough times.

“We have 15 volunteers now, and we hope to expand to 35 in the next two years,” Davis said. “With 35 special advocates, we could get 100 percent coverage for the 75 to 80 children who come through the court each year.”

At the core of the CASA program, the volunteer advocates talk with children, their parents and caregivers to best determine when and if the children will be returned to their parents. It is all about what is in the best interest of the children.

“Of course, the children want to be with their parents,” Davis said. “It is the only reality they know. They still love and need their parents, and reunification is our primary goal. We always want the kids to go home.”

However, the CASA supervisor said, that move may not always be the solution.

“We will try to play a role to define what a safe home environment is and give parents some support to create that environment,” Davis said. “The process usually takes a year, and not all parents are on board at day 1.”

Davis said that some children have been removed from the home because one parent or even both are involved with drugs.

“Drugs are related in most cases,” Davis said. “If it is not the primary reason the children have been removed from the home, it is related to the case in some way.”

She said the cases that are primarily about drug abuse are often the ones that are simpler to deal with for one major reason.

“The parents get treatment for the abuse and get cleaned up,” Davis said. “If drugs are not involved in the issues that caused the children to be removed, then it is hard to understand what made the parents abuse or neglect their children. Sometimes it was meanness. That is harder to fix.”

Davis said that if parents undergo a change for the better and it is in the child’s best interest to go home, the advocate will support the parents’ attempt to reunite the family.

“Those who are working to get better are in a punitive system where everyone is waiting for them to fail,” she said. “As an advocate, we will often be their cheerleader — give them a show of support, tell them, ‘Come on, you can do it.’”

Davis is new to the job, although she has served as a CASA volunteer in Pulaski County and has been a foster parent in Saline County, often working with a CASA volunteer assigned to the two young boys she was fostering.

She said her top priority is to bring in new volunteers from Saline County.

“It is a very different volunteer opportunity,” Davis said. “Most cases will take up 10 to 15 hours a week and will last a year. It is emotionally draining, and the cases often do not end the way we want them to. The job is never really simple. Families have more than one problem, and the system does not have a solution for everything.”

While there are longtime advocates, few last beyond the first year.

“It is hard on some lifestyles,” Davis said. “In many cases, the CASA advocate doesn’t come back after one year. We need those who come back; they have learned their way through the process and in the courtroom. Nothing replaces experience.”

Davis said the larger the team of advocates a CASA chapter has, the better off it is for the children, because they have someone handling their cases and looking after their concerns, but it is also better for the advocates.

“A volunteer can get discouraged after getting close to a family,” Davis said. “They need a sense of community with each other. It often takes a long time to see the outcome of a case, and if they stay in longer, they will still have a connection when a family has success.”

Davis said she thinks it would work well for an advocate to spend a couple of years working with the children and their families, then take off for a while, returning later with more energy and a fresh commitment.

New classes for people interested in being special advocates will run three Mondays, starting Aug. 4 and continuing Aug. 18 and 25.

The morning will be spent observing court at the 22nd Circuit Court in the Saline County Courthouse. The afternoon will be spent in classroom training.

“We are looking at flex training for the future, when people can take some of the courses online,” Davis said. “That will cut down the time in more traditional classes.”

Davis said she enjoyed being a CASA advocate when she lived in Little Rock.

“I loved it. I had two children, and I was looking for more adult contact and something intellectually challenging,” she said. “I wanted to do something to help the most vulnerable part of our population — our children.”

Davis was trained in chemistry and lab sciences. She worked in a laboratory at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock before having children.

To find out more about CASA or to volunteer as an advocate, call Davis at (501) 303-5703 or (501) 436-9258.

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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