In the shadows of daily life, there are abused an neglected children who live right here in Tyler and Wetzel counties. She may be the little girl in a kindergarten class who had to move homes and change schools three or four times in the last year. He may be the lonely child at the park who doesn't join the game. Whatever the circumstances, these children deserve a fighting chance.
In 2008, two petitions were filed in Tyler County in child abuse and neglect cases, and the number continues to increase at a drastic rate. Last year, 21 petitions were filed.
Alarmingly, the statistics for Wetzel County have remained rather steady over the four-year period with 25 petitions filed in 2008, 19 in 2009, 14 in 2010 and 25 in 2011.
The foster care and child welfare system is full of compassionate lawyers, judges, social workers and foster families, but according to recent statistics, each year more than 748,000 children are placed in foster care nationally. This intense need can strain the system to the point where they are simply unable to protect the rights of each child. So the little girl who has already suffered in an abusive home enters the foster care system which places her in three or four different homes in just a few months. Or two siblings who lost their mother to incarceration are split up and living on different sides of the county.
Susan Harrison, executive director of CASA for Children, Inc. which serves families in Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties, believes this isn't just a problem, it is nothing short of a violation of their human rights. "A child cannot defend his or her own rights," she commented. "But a CASA volunteer can!"
CASA for Children, Inc. is a national nonprofit organization which trains and supports volunteers from the community who speak and act as advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children. They are trained to work within the child welfare and family court systems and are appointed by judge to individual cases. With the help of a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer, a child is half as likely to languish in the foster care system and that much more likely to find a safe and permanent home.
"We are not CPS, we do not represent the Department of Health and Human Resources and we are not attorneys, so we are not tied by red tape. We are able to look at each case independently," Harrison explained. "Statistics show that a child who has a CASA volunteer has a stay in foster care that is three months shorter than average."
Harrison has seen firsthand the transformative impact a CASA volunteer can have on a child. But finding volunteers has been challenging. "Today, only 35 percent of the children in need have access to a CASA volunteer. More than 500,000 children don't have that advocate. We are dedicated to ensuring that every child in the foster care and welfare system has a qualified CASA volunteer looking out for their best interests."
To do this, CASA will need more than double the 75,000 current CASA volunteers in 905 local chapters nationwide. To date, Harrison has four volunteers in Tyler County and no one has volunteered in Wetzel County. She needs 12 from each county.
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life, with a variety of professional, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. Many CASA volunteers are employed in regular full-time jobs. CASA programs strive to include volunteers who are representative of the community in which they serve. CASAs are ordinary citizens - no special or legal backgrounds is required.
"The biggest thing volunteers need is a heart for children," Harrison explained. "They must also possess the ability to be objective and to identify deficiencies in families without passing judgment.
Every volunteer is screened closely for objectivity, competence, and commitment, and all CASA volunteers must meet program requirements and qualifications.
"The training is intense," Harrison remarked. "There is 30 hours of classroom training required to become a volunteer. We cover everything from how a case enters the system, to how to write a report."
Volunteers must be at least 21 years of age, be able to pass a background check, and cannot have any criminal convictions or pending charges for a felony or misdemeanor involving a sex offense, abuse, or neglect, or acts that would pose a risk to children or the CASA program on their record. After completing the preliminary application
process, potential volunteers will have a face-to-face interview.
A CASA volunteer provides a judge with a carefully researched background of the child to help the court make a sound decision about that child's future. Because each home placement is as unique as the child involved, the CASA volunteer must determine if it is in the child's best interest to stay with his or her parents or guardians, be placed in foster care, or be freed for permanent adoption.
Judges often appoint CASA volunteers upon request. "Anyone can ask for a CASA volunteer to be appointed to his or her case," Harrison explained. "But in West Virginia, a petition must be filed for abuse and neglect."
"Sometimes judges call because they need an objective opinion," she added.
The CASA volunteer talks to the child, parents, family members, social workers, school officials, health providers, and others who are knowledgeable about the child's circumstances. The volunteer reviews record and other relevant documents and observes the child. Facts gathered throughout the investigation provide the basis for recommendations to the court.
"We don't investigate the allegations, we look at the family," Harrison said. "Do I advocate hard for every parent? No. I advocate hard for every child."
According to information provided, a child with a CASA volunteer is more likely to find a safe, permanent home. He or she is more likely to be adopted, half as likely to re-enter foster care, and is substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care.
Harrison says the whole idea is not to let cases fall through the cracks. "Every child has a right to thrive. To be treated with dignity, and to live in a safe, loving home. Every child deserves a fighting chance. I invite people throughout Tyler and Wetzel counties to stand up with me and support these children. My goal is to make sure every child is served."
She added, "If volunteering is not for you, you can help by donating to our organization."
Donations can be sent to 258 Jefferson Ave., Moundsville, WV 26041. Checks should be made payable to CASA for Children.
Visit www.CASAforchildren.org for more information, or contact Harrison at 304-810-0952.