Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group that advocates for children, is looking for volunteers.
CASA advocates aim to carry out an independent investigation of the children’s needs and to make recommendations in the children’s best interest, according to Executive Director Wanda Strayhorn, who has been with the organization for a decade.
“We recruit volunteers, who are just regular people, to be a voice for abused and neglected children,” she said.
“(Volunteers) come before the juvenile judge in the county and they are classified as CASA advocates – that is a judge’s decision.”
In some cases, the judge appoints a CASA worker “to have an extra set of eyes on the children,” said Strayhorn.
“The judge knows the volunteer is going to visit that child, get to know that child, attend DCS (Department of Children’s Services) meetings, attend educational meetings, and attend mental health meetings,” Strayhorn said.
“We also read lots of reports from DCS and Juvenile Services through the court. That’s done by a court order that is given specifically to CASA. That appointment order gives us the authority to talk to everyone that affects the child’s life.
“By getting that information, CASA volunteers and supervisors are able to make recommendations that are objective, in the best interest of the child and inform the judge about the child’s status and what the child needs.”
Reunification with the parents is always the preferred option, when that’s possible.
CASA’s recommendation helps the judge make better decisions to help the child thrive, she said
“We will go that extra mile to make sure (the home) where the child is placed is adequate and the child is thriving,” Strayhorn said.
Serving hundreds of local children
CASA volunteers help hundreds of children each year.
“This year, in Coffee County we served 150 children as of June 30,” Strayhorn said. “In Bedford County, we served 48 children. In Franklin County, we served 159 children.”
With that many cases, the organization is in dire need of advocates.
“We don’t have enough volunteers,” she said. “We have eight volunteers in Bedford County, 12 in Coffee County and 14 volunteers in Franklin County. Many of our volunteers take multiple cases.”
A supervisor interacts with and supports the volunteers in each county.
Strayhorn encouraged locals to become advocates.
“It’s a matter of giving back when you have been blessed,” she said.
Individuals with “a passion to do good in the community and make a difference in somebody’s life” should consider becoming CASA advocates, she added.
“It does not take someone with specializes training, it just takes someone with common sense,” Strayhorn said. “A volunteer only needs to show a desire, a passion for giving back, a passion for children and for making a difference in this world, one child at a time.”
There are basic rules, regulations and requirements for volunteers.
“They have to be at least 21 and cannot have criminal background,” she said. “And have to agree to not buy the child gifts because we have to remain objective. We’re not allowed to take children home with us or transport children in our vehicles. And volunteers must attend 35 hours of training.”
The training is always fun and interactive, she added.
“At the end of the training, volunteers receive a certificate and they are sworn by the juvenile judge of the county,” Strayhorn said.
Finding home for children
“My favorite aspect of my job is when a child finds a home,” Strayhorn said. “If a child can go home to a safe environment, that’s a happy moment for me.”
Strayhorn recalled the first child she helped as a CASA volunteer.
“That girl was adopted by a foster family,” Strayhorn said. “She has now completed her college education. She became a peer advocate to other children who were in foster care. She also worked part time and spoke for Youth Villages, which is a foster home and mental health agency.
“Additionally, she became an intern at the DCS, the very place that removed her from her family. And she speaks for CASA at CASA’s luncheons and fundraisers about the importance of having CASA on your side and the difference CASA makes in a child’s life. And Youth Villages are going to hire her.”
Local children in rough situations need an advocate to help them believe in and see a brighter future.
“So many children out there need someone to be their voice and stand in the gap for them when things are going wrong at a critical time in their lives,” Strayhorn said. “They need that constant person because everything can change for them – their communities, schools, the people they are living with are strangers, but their CASA advocate is the one thing that stays constant. And they can reach out to that person.”