SALISBURY – A volunteer program that advocates for children in the court system will expand into Wicomico and Somerset counties next month.
Beginning July 1, the Lower Shore CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program – currently serving foster children in Worcester County’s child welfare system – will expand its operations into Worcester and Somerset counties. Sally Rankin, program development facilitator, said the expansion will allow volunteers to better serve children in the community.
“It’s an extremely valuable program for not only the children who benefit from it, but for the courts and the community as well,” she said.
Lower Shore CASA advocates for children under the protection of the court system due to abuse, neglect or abandonment, the organization reports. Simply put, the program trains volunteers to become court appointed special advocates. These advocates are then appointed to a child and are tasked with advocating for the child’s best interests.
“The fiscal year 2021 CASA report says children who were assigned a CASA before their cased reached the review stage spent an average of 16.6 fewer months in care. That’s more than a year’s difference,” Rankin said. “There’s also evidence that shows with CASA volunteer involvement, these children have fewer placements. They have a permanent home.”
The idea of training volunteers to advocate for children in court first began in Seattle. And by 1990, the U.S. Congress encouraged the expansion of CASA with the passage of the Victims of Child Abuse Act.
In 2002, Lower Shore CASA began operating in Worcester and Wicomico counties. In 2008, however, funding for the Wicomico area was no longer provided.
Rankin – who had worked for several years in the Maryland court system – said efforts to expand the program began in earnest three years ago, when she was approached by First Circuit Administrative Judge S. James Sarbanes, who had expressed an interest in bringing a child advocacy program to Wicomico.
“He said, ‘I have a job for you. I just got funding to start a child advocacy program in Wicomico County,’” she recalled.
That first year, Rankin said she worked with the circuit court to develop an advocacy program for abused and neglected children. And when funding wasn’t extended, officials began working with Maryland CASA and other local agencies to expand CASA services into Wicomico and Somerset counties, a move that was also supported by Somerset County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Daniel W. Powell.
“Maryland CASA was really pleased with it because there are only three counties in Maryland that didn’t have the program – Wicomico, Somerset and Garrett,” Rankin said.
Working with state and local agencies, officials submitted their funding request to the state and hired Rankin to help expand and develop the CASA program. Earlier this month, the program received official membership notice from National CASA.
“I have seen the need firsthand for a CASA program for our foster care children,” Sarbanes said in a statement. “Not only do children with CASA volunteers spend less time in foster care, they tend to perform better academically and behaviorally in school.”
“I still see a widening gap that needs to be filled for the children involved in child welfare cases,” he said. “A CASA has the potential to positively affect the overall health and well-being of these children, both now and into the future. The impact of COVID, the lack of social constructs and isolation has only made a CASA’s involvement even more imperative.”
Officials report they will be partnering with the Life Crisis Center, Inc., which will act as the sponsoring organization for the tri-county program. The expansion will launch on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
“Life Crisis has an excellent reputation for the many services provided to those in need on the Lower Shore, including advocacy,” Sarbanes said. “Executive Director Jamie Manning worked with Lower Shore CASA when she was a supervisor at the Department of Social Services so she is well-equipped to bring this plan to fruition.”
In a statement issued last week, Manning said a successful CASA program needed strong community support.
“There are many ways to support the Lower Shore CASA program,” she said. “You can become a CASA volunteer, help us fundraise, donate to the program and spread the word about the needs of these vulnerable children. By getting involved you can make a difference in our community by giving a child hope for a brighter childhood and future.”
Rankin noted the CASA program relies on volunteers to support children in the welfare system. She encouraged those who cannot volunteer to donate to the CASA program or share the program’s mission with others.
“Even if you can’t be a volunteer, or aren’t in a position to donate, you may know someone who can do either or both,” she said.
Lower Shore CASA will have office space in the Circuit Court for Worcester County and the Circuit Court for Wicomico County.
To learn more, visit lowershorecasa.org, email [email protected] or call Lower Shore CASA director Jerrona Smith at 443-782-3585.