Volunteers Make Positive Changes
A small toddler is found living is squalor after a parent is arrested on drug charges. The child has not be bathed, fed or looked in on for several days. Two preteen siblings are reported by a concerned teacher to authorities because they arrive in school haggard in appearance and have bruising visible on their bodies. Police investigate and find that both are living with a parent who is physically abusing them daily. These sound like a stories on the news in a large city or urban area, but they are not — they are children East Texans see every day.
Drivers stopped at the corner of East Fifth and Donnybrook may never look to the left and notice the small orange brick building with the white columns that silently house one of the hardest working non-profit organizations in any county. This is the home of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of East Texas (CASA).
CASA has served Smith, Wood and Van Zandt counties since 1990 as a voice for children removed from their homes and placed in foster care or are orphaned due to neglect or violence. It is a purely volunteer service. There are no paid representatives and the CASA advocates do not work for the courts, lawyers, families or Child Protective Services (CPS). They work whole-heartedly for and with the children in these cases.
“We are a unique fill for the gap for a child who has no home,” said Kimberly Abeldt, board chairperson and CASA advocate.
Serving three of the largest counties in East Texas with a caseload of more than 525 children in these three counties in the first six months of 2013 is the scope of the work lovingly accepted by CASA. The magnitude is illustrated when Katherine Elliot the Community Outreach Coordinator for CASA says “all of those cases have or are being handled by just 135 volunteers.”
These volunteers travel far and wide to make sure that every victimized child they can help has a voice. Sadly there are not enough CASA advocates and some cases must be turned away.
“CASA is there just for that one child at that moment,” she said. “Each advocate looks out for not only what is best for the future, but what is best for right now for the child.”
Volunteers do not take this lightly.
Elliot and her husband needed a CASA advocate almost 12 years ago with their adopted son. That CASA advocate fought with them for their son. After being helped so greatly, the Elliots began to work with fundraising for CASA and became advocates themselves. Now, for the past six years, Katherine has been a full-time coordinator for the group.
Both Abeldt and Elliot know and have experienced the power of this group. They have watched families repaired, children pulled from horrible circumstances that grow and thrive, dreams of forever homes and families realized in hours of adoption proceedings and even seen advocates be the loving arms that hold a child when no one will as they take their last breath.
“This is a hard role, but our volunteers give so much of themselves for these kids. They have no fear,” Abedlt said.
For the first time in its history the East Texas CASA had to report in the last year that in the cases they served seven of the children were witness to or involved in a circumstance or event involving homicide.
CASA advocates serve as the neutral ground in a victim’s life. They speak to the judge on behalf of the child, but they may do so much more such as meeting with their teacher when school issues need to be addressed, taking them to a doctor when health is a concern, seeing counselors when a young mind and spirit need release, seeing lawyers when courts issues arise, visiting family when connection and updates must be reported and most importantly, they talk with the child. They listen to the dreams, hopes, fears, needs and wishes that child is dreaming, no matter if it is a forever family or an ice cream on a warm afternoon.
One advocate listened so closely that they knew that an extended family member with a home too small to keep a child who was abandoned, was the right solution and home for a child caught up in a tragedy. The CASA, court and community of East Texas worked together to make sure room was added on that home so a child could stay safe, loved and with family. All the work, building and man hours were done for free and a child’s life was made whole again.
CASA operates on donations from grants and its annual Justice is Served fundraiser. They are not government funded. East Texans serving jury duty in their service counties can elect to have their jury pay donated to CASA.
“That is a huge help to keep us going,” Abedlt said.
Monetary donations are not CASA’s greatest need. They need advocates, especially in Wood and Van Zandt Counties.
These volunteers make sure that every victimized child they can help has a voice, but there are not enough CASA advocates and some cases must be turned away.
“Our greatest need is for advocate volunteers in Wood and Van Zandt counties,” Elliot said, noting that each of these counties has fewer than 10 volunteers living in that assigned district.
The commitment is asked for at least one year and is a very extensive application with criminal background checks and the interview process. Once accepted, volunteers must go through 32 hours of both online and group training, conduct court observations, and be sworn in by a standing judge. Anyone interested in becoming a CASA advocate and who has a flexible schedule to become a driving force for change in a child’s life they should call Katherine Elliot at 903.597.7725.
“These children are gifts to all of us and this is never a burden.” Elliot said.