Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series.
The term "Court Appointed Special Advocate" or CASA describes volunteers from the local community trained to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children involved in juvenile court proceedings.
Lea Ann Thomas was appointed by Judge Ernest Yelton as CASA coordinator for Clay County. She is also Host Home coordinator as well. But that's another story, although many of the cases are intwined.
Many authorities and agencies are working together every day for the safety and security of Clay County children. It's no question that children are abused in Clay County. The question is: What's being done for our children?
Lea is the wife of Clay County Prosecutor David Thomas. Obviously, they work simultaneously on many cases.
"Not all cases come before CASA. The prosecutor sees a lot more. If a child is getting abused from outside the family, then the child doesn't need court intervention in the homes, so a different agency becomes involved with the case," Thomas said.
During 2002 in Clay County, 57 children were assigned to CASA. The month of December had 26 cases. However, the actual number of children could be higher because those are case numbers and sometimes multiple children from the same household are grouped together as one case.
"We did this because there are so many times when two or more children live in the same home with different last names, and it's easier to keep track of the children that way," Thomas explained.
Of those, zero were sexual abuse, one was physical abuse, two were delinquency, eight were neglect and 15 were other. She said "other" could be circumstances of homelessness, a child's parents in jail, babies born with drugs in their system and many more combinations of problems.
"We're so impoverished in Clay County, so mainly we have neglect concerns. Housekeeping issues are a big problem. Sometimes parents just need to be taught how to take care of their home and family," Thomas said. "And many of the cases we see are of children who have one or both of their parents incarcerated, often times as the result of drugs, and no one is available to care for the children."
Once a child abuse or neglect complaint is filed, it is investigated and substantiated by authorities. An informal adjustment is made and the child may be removed from the home to live with a relative or in foster care. A detention hearing is conducted within 48 hours and the child or children are assigned to a CASA. An initial hearing is conducted to give parents an opportunity to admit or deny the complaints.
Individual case plans for each child are then developed and ordered by the court. CASAs monitor, investigate and report on those case plans.
One family may need training while another might require physical or mental health services or transportation. Many families need a CASA to coordinate several services.
"The best thing about CASAs is that we are there especially for that particular child. We develop trusts and friendships. We are volunteers who are not overloaded with other cases. We might be with that child for less than six months or however long is necessary to establish permanency for that child," Thomas said.
She oversees 12 active volunteers, appointed by Judge
Yelton, who have completed training for the volunteer pro¡gram. The National CASA Assoc., Inc. helped over 1 million children in 2001.
Thomas said she thinks people are working on the problem by getting involved with early intervention services and that education is the key. She cited the CAPE grant (Community Alliances Promoting Education sponsored by Lilly Endowment Inc.) as being instrumental is developing education and bringing in more jobs to Clay County.
"I have no leniency for people who hurt children. We need to do whatever we can to protect the children, because they can't protect themselves," she said.
The final part of this three-part series in The Brazil Times will take a look at the first documented case of child abuse.