Court-appointed advocates work for children

June 13, 2004|By CANDICE BOSELY

A horse farmer by trade, Vickie Carper had only set foot in a courtroom once before - when she was summoned for jury duty. She grew up in a happy, healthy home and raised her two sons in the same kind of environment.

But sometimes, while shopping for instance, she notices children walking with their shoulders drooped and their heads down.

Children who were in her community, but a world away from what she has known.

"Their little eyes just look empty," she said. "A world without a child's smile is not a very happy world."

Helping such "lost children" is why Carper decided to become a volunteer for CASA of the Eastern Panhandle. Volunteers with CASA, or Court-Appointed Special Advocates, are matched with a child who has been abused or neglected. They help ensure that child's wants and needs are met.

Sometimes that means placing the child in a foster home or with a family member not connected to the abuse.


Other times families can receive the guidance and help they need to be able to keep their children with them.

CASA volunteers meet with the child or children in their case on a regular basis and form a bond with them.

They work only on behalf of the child - not for law enforcement, attorneys, social workers or parents. Eventually, they submit a report that a Circuit Court judge uses in determining where the child should live.

Volunteers do not have to have any specific background or experience. They undergo 40 hours of training before being sworn in and receiving their first case, which they work on with a partner.

The only requirement, said CASA Executive Director Christine Mayman, is a passion for and a desire to help children.

When Carper, 53, first became interested in becoming a volunteer, she had a firm belief - those who abused children should receive no second chances.

Training, though, changed her stance. She said she now understands that some parents abuse their children because they themselves were abused.

It's a cycle that possibly can be broken if a CASA volunteer steps in and helps the family, she said.

"It (the training) opened my eyes and my heart to what was going on around me," Carper said. "It was intense, but the most wonderful thing I have ever done."

Renny Smith, whose experience has enabled her to take on two cases, is working with an abused teenager and with three younger children who come from "a long line of very drug-addicted people."

Smith, 64, has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in social work and previously worked in child protective services in New Jersey.

"As the jobs got bigger, I got farther from the children," Smith said. "After retirement, I saw this as a way of getting 'back to where I once belonged,' as The Beatles put it."

With several other volunteer organizations available for adults who want to work with children, those who want to give their time to CASA should understand its demands, Smith said.

Keeping records, writing reports and adhering to guidelines is required.

With no college degree required, CASA volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds.

They include a retired nurse, a law student, a homemaker, professionals, a retired teacher and a nursing student. All but one are women, Mayman said.

How many hours a volunteer works will vary. Mayman said it could be a couple of hours a week or as many as eight to 10 a week in the beginning of a case.

The national average is 10 to 15 hours a month, she said.

For the children, a volunteer is a positive, reliable adult.

"They realize somebody cares," Mayman said.

To handle every case of child abuse and neglect reported in the Panhandle, Mayman estimates 100 volunteers would be needed.

Because just 18 volunteers - including six who graduated a couple of weeks ago - are available now, cases are screened to determine which could best benefit by being assigned a volunteer.

Most cases involve one or more children, meaning CASA volunteers currently are working on nine cases that involve 23 children, Mayman said.

Sharon Davis, 48, decided to become a CASA volunteer after seeing her grandson go through the court system. She now has custody of the 4-year-old boy.

She is working on her first case, which involves more than one child.

"It's rough when you see kids and you see parents that are on drugs or something and you can't convince them to help themselves," she said.

A reward is seeing families reunited.

"Sometimes when you lose something or you're ready to lose something, you realize that child is worth it," she said of families who better themselves to keep their children.

Davis tries to meet with the children in her case every other week and supplement the visits with phone calls.

She'll discuss Spider-Man with them or play cards, while talking to them and getting information.

"If you want to make a difference in a child's life, I can't think of a better way," Davis said.

With an overworked DHHR system, sometimes a CASA volunteer will become a child's only significant voice.

"If you don't do it, who's going to?" she asked.

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