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Group's plea is heard in Berkeley County

July 15, 2005|by CANDICE BOSLEY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Valerie Smith asked the members of the Berkeley County Commission on Thursday to close their eyes and picture themselves sitting in the bleachers at Martinsburg High School's athletic stadium.

Enough abused or neglected children exist in the Eastern Panhandle to fill every seat, said Smith, who is with CASA, a nonprofit organization that works of behalf of such children.

"You have no idea what's happening to these kids. And they're all your children. They're Berkeley County's children," Smith told the commissioners.

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Smith appeared at the County Commission meeting to ask that CASA - Court-Appointed Special Advocates - be allowed to have office space within a county building.

Currently, the organization works from offices provided by the Department of Health and Human Resources, but the offices are small and some clients might incorrectly assume CASA is part of DHHR, Smith said.

County Commissioner Howard Strauss said the county must first consider the needs of county offices. He said there is barely enough space for them.

Disagreeing, Commissioner Steve Teufel said he believed the county could offer CASA space in a building at 126 W. King St., Martinsburg, which the county recently vacated when it moved some of its offices to the Dunn Building.

The West King Street building is now used for storage and eventually will be sold. Teufel said CASA could use the first floor for its offices and pay only for utilities before the county sells the building. While using the space for a year, CASA officials could seek a more permanent site, Teufel said.

Teufel's suggestion passed by a 3-0 vote, but still must be discussed by CASA's Board of Directors. Several CASA board members who attended the meeting applauded the commissioners' offer of office space.

Smith said there were 1,500 cases of child abuse or neglect in the Eastern Panhandle last year, with 750 of the cases originating in Berkeley County.

"That's a lot of children being hurt," she said, adding that children are being beaten, burned, stabbed or sexually assaulted.

Of the 1,500 cases, CASA volunteers were only able to work on 60.

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 permanently live.

CASA volunteers - there are now 23, with another class of 10 set to undergo training in September - have worked 2,230 volunteer hours on cases, Smith said.

Smith originally asked for space in the county's judicial center, which is set to open next summer.

Although no space is available there, the offices at the West King Street location will put CASA's staff and volunteers in close proximity to the county's three Circuit Court judges, Teufel said.

Strauss said he would support leasing the space, provided CASA understands that after the lease expires, the building will be sold.

"There's no carrot that's provided after that one year," he said.

The building at 126 W. King St. is one of five that will be empty, and eventually sold, after the county consolidates all of its offices in the former Blue Ridge Outlet Center buildings, which the county bought about three years ago.

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