"Poverty is a different issue than neglect," Court Appointed Special Advocate Coordinator/Director for Clay County Lee Ann Thomas said, quickly making the distinction. "A mother or father dealing with issues of poverty does not make them a bad parent as they struggle to provide for their children. Children in poverty may not have the best of everything, just enough to get by."
The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program is a lifeline for the abused and neglected children involved in the juvenile courts. As of May 2005, there are 20 open cases in Clay County involving CASA advocates, and the numbers are expected to rise as the year progresses.
"Neglect is an entirely different issue," Thomas said of the types of cases CASA volunteers become involved in. "Extremely young children left unattended for long periods of time, lacking shelter or food, living in a filthy environment or those children which are victims of abuse are who CASA volunteers give a voice to in the judicial system."
Concerned about making court decisions about abused and neglected children's lives without sufficient information, a Seattle judge in 1977 decided to use trained volunteers to speak on behalf of these children in court. The program was a huge success, and judges across the country began utilizing citizen advocates.
"For a child, having a committed judge-appointed CASA volunteer by your side to watch over and advocate for their best interests in court and with social services is the difference between falling into the cracks of the judicial system or successfully being placed with a nurturing family," Thomas said of the CASA volunteers who remain on their cases until they are closed by the court. Clay County has eight trained advocates to handle the local caseload. "It's our job to make sure the child gets the individual care they need in a time of crisis."
Local CASA volunteers are the guardians ad litem for children in 20 open cases in Clay County, of which more than 50 percent are meth related.
"Meth, especially in this area, is causing many parents to just abandon their children to the system because of drug abuse," Thomas said. "The cases are so overwhelmingly sad sometimes that CASA volunteers need to take time away to clear their heads and hearts from the pain they see. That is why we are looking for more people interested in becoming a CASA advocate."
Thomas said that early intervention by CASA advocates can make the difference in these children's future lives. For young children it often is a matter of whether they will be homeless or have a safe home to live in. For older children it can be the difference between dropping out and completing school.
"As these children of the judicial system grow into adulthood, the work done by our CASA advocates now to stabilize a child's life can determine whether their adulthood will be a future of becoming a successful productive member of society, or ending up unemployed and turning to a life of crime," Thomas said.
To become a CASA volunteer, a person must fill out an application and be willing to submit to an extensive background check. Once approved, volunteers must complete the training and internship required to become a CASA advocate. Many CASA advocates maintain full-time employment while donating their time to help children trapped in circuit court proceedings because of parental neglect.
"Our job as an advocate is to look out for a child's best interest, but many times through our job we break the cycles of neglect and abuse. It is very rewarding work when you can help a child that way."