‘We will aid the abused and neglected children’

A 10-year-old girl had to take care of her four siblings because their mother is consumed by an addiction to alcohol and drugs.

A 7-year-old boy was neglected by his drug-addicted mother and physically abused by her boyfriend.

A 12-year-old girl was left with no choice but to steal and stash food stamps because her mother trades the government assistance intended for her food, clothes and other items in exchange for alcohol and drugs.

These examples aren’t isolated to other parts of Indiana or America. They happen right here in Jackson County.

The court-appointed special advocates program in the county has about 40 volunteers providing a voice for nearly 70 children involved in the foster care and child welfare system who are victims of abuse and neglect.

But more than 70 children are waiting for a CASA to be their voice in court and help find them a forever home as quickly as possible.

After hearing that statistic, the purpose of the Leadership Jackson County youth services project team of Lee Ann Borden, Scott Heyne, Brooke Lemon, Kathy Nelson and Julie Warren became quite clear.

The group collaborated with Jackson County CASA director Deena Personett and others in the community to develop a marketing plan for the nonprofit organization, which is a division of Child Care Network.

That included a new brochure, a volunteer recruitment video, media coverage and a new retractable banner and other marketing tools to help spread the word about CASA.

Personett said she appreciates the project team and LJC director Terrye Davidson for thinking of CASA.

“I cannot thank you guys enough because the things that you have provided us will definitely help increase our volunteer base in the long run,”¬†Personett said during the recent LJC project presentations. “Most importantly, we will aid the abused and neglected children of Jackson County.”

Indiana law requires the appointment of either a guardian ad litem or a trained CASA in all Child in Need of Services, or CHINS, cases, which are abuse and neglect cases.

GAL or CASA volunteers are fully empowered to advocate for the children. They have full-party status in child welfare cases, meaning they have the right to attend hearings, present information to the court and obtain relevant records and make recommendations and requests to the court on behalf of the child.

CASAs are appointed by the court to represent a child’s best interests. They do not replace children services agencies or other caseworkers, nor do they provide legal representation.

Jackson County has had a CASA program since 2011. It’s part of a network of nearly 1,000 community-based programs in the country.

In 2015, Jackson County CASA volunteers provided a voice for 81 children in abuse/neglect, termination of parental rights and juvenile delinquency cases and made 600 contacts with those children. Also last year, volunteers donated 1,970 hours advocating for the children of the county.

About 660,000 children experience foster care in America. Last year, CASA volunteers serviced nearly 234,000 children. That leaves more than 400,000 children needing an advocate on their behalf.

“CASA volunteers give these children the voice they need,” Personett said. “They are an extra set of eyes and ears for the judge to help him make the best informed decisions. We also work very diligently to find these children a safe, loving and consistent forever home.”

With the current wait list, Personett said she would need to double the volunteer base to serve all of the children.

That’s where people age 21 and older can step up to apply to be a volunteer.

After completing an application, a person goes through a screening process and a criminal background check.

If approved, that person completes a 30-hour training session at the Jackson County CASA office. That includes court observation and hearing from local police officers and Department of Child Services representatives.

Once training is completed, a CASA is sworn in by a judge. Here, that’s Bruce MacTavish with Jackson Superior Court II, which is the county’s family court.

Each year, CASAs have to complete 12 hours of continued education.

“CASA recruits and trains ordinary people to do extraordinary work for abused and neglected children,” Personett said. “But CASA is not for everyone. Our stories are very ugly, but our endings are very happy. If it’s not for you, everyone probably has a friend, a relative, a coworker who can stand up for these abused and neglected children.”

If you can’t volunteer, one way to help is making a donation. CASA is supported by the State Court Administration and Jackson County Council, but it heavily relies on donations. A donation of $60 covers a background check for a volunteer.

Lemon said the project team was drawn toward CASA after hearing from Personett, MacTavish and CASA volunteer Debbie Laitinen during the November class meeting.

“Intrinsically, we wanted our project to make a positive impact on the youth of Jackson County who have the greatest needs,” she said. “Prior to the session in November, none of us realized what a huge impact a CASA could have on the abused and neglected youth of Jackson County. We felt moved to do some sort of project that involved this demographic of youth.”

Borden said when the team learned about the waiting list, it decided to establish a marketing plan for the program to increase community awareness, which in turn hopefully would increase interest in CASA volunteers.

The group presented a rough draft of the marketing plan to Personett and her newly established CASA recruitment committee, which consists of current CASA volunteers.

That feedback helped the team move forward in finalizing the marketing plan. Local donors and volunteers helped make the marketing tools possible, and one also made CASA aware of an ongoing grant opportunity.

The goal of the project team is for the tools and resources to result in the recruitment of five to eight new CASA volunteers in the coming months.

At the end of the team’s presentation, Davidson presented Personett with her volunteer application.

When she was a school guidance counselor, Davidson said she saw the impact CASAs make. She had thought about being a CASA for several years, and the project team’s work inspired her to apply.

“Obviously, the talk of child abuse and neglect is very sad and quite sobering, especially when you realize that it’s happening so frequently in your very own community,” Warren said. “However, we must say that we as a group have found this project work to be extremely purposeful, an unexpected blessing and, quite frankly, a labor of love.”

At a glance

If you are interested in becoming a Jackson County CASA volunteer or making a donation, call 812-569-2598 or email deenap@cabjackson.org.

The office is at 113 N. Chestnut St., Suite 305, in downtown Seymour in the Community Agency Building.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.