BERLIN – With a growing, diverse population in Worcester County and an in-kind growth in the number of children needing a support system, a local advocacy group is calling out for more volunteers to help meet the need.
Neglected, abused and otherwise troubled children in Worcester who find themselves snared in the endless web of the complex legal system have a neutral friend in the Lower Shore Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, but the local support system needs more volunteers to keep up with the growing demand for its services. CASA, the volunteer driven, non-profit program that is part of the larger Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services program, provides a network of private citizen volunteers to look out for the interests of troubled children caught in the tangled web of the judicial, educational and social services systems.
Children helped by CASA volunteers often include those whose placement is being determined by juvenile court and most are victims of abuse and neglect. CASA volunteers carefully research the background of the child whose case they have been assigned to, interviewing parents, teachers, social workers, attorneys, doctors and anyone else who touches the child’s life, to help the court make a more informed decision about the child’s future.
During the course of one’s advocacy on behalf of a child, a CASA volunteer gathers the facts and makes recommendations in a written report to a judge and often gives oral testimony in court if requested. The volunteers also offer the children trust during complex legal proceedings and explain to the child the events that are happening, the reasons they are in court in the first place and the roles the judge, lawyers and social workers play.
After a decision has been handed down by a judge, the CASA volunteers’ work is not done. They continue to work to ensure court-ordered services are provided in a timely manner and continue to provide emotional support to the child after a judge makes a ruling on his or her future.
The CASA program was founded years ago by a Seattle judge who often found himself making life choices for a child without all the pertinent information. The judge founded CASA because he felt he needed somebody to tell him what was best of an individual child from the child’s viewpoint.
From an inaugural class of six volunteers about five years ago, the local CASA program now has about 15 volunteers advocating for troubled children. However, with the growth in the county and larger societal holes in the safety net, the Lower Shore CASA program is hoping to increase its number of volunteers with a current recruiting drive.
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life with varied ethnic, professional and educational backgrounds. The Lower Shore CASA program trains its volunteers and there are no major prerequisites for being an advocate for a child in trouble, according to program director Carolyn Cordial.
“If you have a good heart and care about kids, we can train you to advocate for them,” she said.
With the population in Worcester growing and diversifying, the CASA program is hoping to attract a diversified group of volunteers to meet the needs of children. Currently, 60 percent of the children the local program serves are African-American, while 30 percent are white and 10 percent are Hispanic.
“We would like to try to match our volunteers to the population of children we serve,” said Cordial. “We are looking to increase the number of African-American volunteers as well as the number of Hispanic volunteers.”
While becoming a CASA volunteer is a tremendous responsibility, the typical time commitment required is not as onerous as it might appear. There is a 40-hour training program at the beginning, but the typical time commitment for a volunteer after completing his or her training is minimal compared to the value of the service provided to a child in need, according to Cordial.
“After one is assigned a case, the commitment is about seven to 10 hours a month,” she said. “The advocates talk with everybody in the child’s life. Basically, they act like a healthy parent would act.”
While most- as many as 80 percent- of the children in need of CASA’s services come from homes with addictions, others find themselves snagged in the legal system for a variety of other reasons. For that reason, some of CASA’s clients just need an objective third party to help a judge decide what is best for the child.
“Many of these children are growing up in families that are just trying to do their best, but it isn’t always enough,” she said. “Their basic needs are being met, but we try to make sure a judge knows what the child needs to be healthy and safe.”
Cordial said the local CASA program is hoping to schedule its next training sessions sometime this fall. Anyone who would like to become a CASA volunteer and advocate on behalf of a troubled child in the community is encouraged to contact the Lower Shore CASA program at 410-641-4598.