April 27, 2018

CASA volunteers work to change lives of vulnerable children

A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer meeting takes place on April 3 in New Albany. Pictured are left, Debbie Mefford, director of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ CASA program; volunteer Cheryl Schy; Kerma Hopewell, staff advocate/recruiter; and volunteers Donna Sherrard, Lynda Grunzinger and Paul Grunzinger. (Submitted photo)

A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer meeting takes place on April 3 in New Albany. Pictured are left, Debbie Mefford, director of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ CASA program; volunteer Cheryl Schy; Kerma Hopewell, staff advocate/recruiter; and volunteers Donna Sherrard, Lynda Grunzinger and Paul Grunzinger. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s Note: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.)

By Patricia Happel Cornwell (Special to The Criterion)

NEW ALBANY—In southern Indiana, cases of child abuse and neglect are on the rise. According to Debra Mefford, director of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, “There has been a 58 percent increase in cases of abused and neglected children since 2015, mostly due to parents using drugs.”

The St. Elizabeth website notes its CASA program was created to address the needs of those children who get “caught up in the complicated family court and foster care system” after being removed from an unsafe environment. CASA volunteers “receive specialized training and are sworn in as officers of the court to speak up on behalf of [those] children.”

St. Elizabeth’s CASA program began serving Floyd and Washington counties in southern Indiana in 1987. Before Mefford assumed leadership of the program in 2015, she was a CASA volunteer for five years in Kentucky. She also worked for more than 20 years as a paralegal advocating for individuals injured on the job. Now, she trains advocates for children.

While some other counties have their own programs, Mefford says, “All counties have the same need for volunteers and the same goal of serving abused and neglected children.”

CASA children may have suffered physical or sexual abuse, homelessness or unsanitary home conditions. Some are removed from the home and placed in foster care. Others remain with parents or are placed with relatives, where they may still be at risk.

“We try to work with parents,” Mefford says, “but the safety of the child comes first. Often, if there is no bruise or broken bone, it can be hard to understand that a child has been damaged. But know this: what is not seen is just as damaging.”

‘Change the path of a child for the better’

According to St. Elizabeth’s web site, more than 700,000 children suffer abuse and neglect in the U.S. every year and enter the family court and foster care systems.

St. Elizabeth’s CASA program has two paid staff advocates, one whose position, funded by a federal Victims of Crime Act grant, enables her to handle the cases of more than 50 children, and one who assists volunteers in and out of court and manages the program’s database. Yet the number of abused and neglected children in the area is so great that volunteers are badly needed.

Although there are currently 73 trained CASA volunteers serving approximately 240 children, 250 more children are waiting to be assigned a volunteer. At present, most of the children in the program are toddlers, but children up to 18 years of age are eligible.

Prospective volunteers undergo a background check before going through 30 hours of training—half in a classroom, half in a courtroom. There are no educational or residency requirements for volunteers. They need not live in the same county where the child for whom they advocate lives.

“What is mostly needed,” Mefford says, “is a person who has the desire to change the path of a child for the better.”

Classes are offered on an almost continuous basis, and the most recent group of volunteers started their training in mid-March. Trainees must be at least 21 years old and make a one-year commitment to the program.

Part of the role of CASA volunteers is to gather information about a child’s situation. To do so, they interview relatives, neighbors, friends, teachers, baby sitters or anyone who knows the child and the family.

Mefford says the national CASA standard for volunteer/child contact is once a month, but St. Elizabeth’s CASA program encourages contact “at least every other week, more depending on the circumstances.”

Outreach ‘is very rewarding’

Bob and Pam Spiller of New Albany work as a team representing three youths, two aged 14 and one who is 17. They see them about every two weeks. The couple has attended the teens’ sporting events, a graduation dinner, taken prom pictures and met them for lunch.

Members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, the Spillers have two adult children. The couple became aware of CASA when Pam volunteered with St. Elizabeth’s maternity program.

Bob says, “Our experience is that these kids do not have any responsible, trustworthy adults in their lives. Getting to know them and slowly becoming someone in their life that they trust and look up to is very rewarding.”

The most difficult part of the role, he says, is “holding back. When you read the case reports, the first thing you want to do is take them out to lunch or dinner or bring them gifts, anything to make their life better. CASA has rules, which I agree with. You can’t take them in your vehicle or bring them to your house. You’re not supposed to bring them gifts or give them money. Our job is to investigate, facilitate, monitor and advocate.”

CASA volunteer Aubrey Dufour of Salem, has six children of her own, ages 6 to 19. She has been in the program for about four years.

“My motivation for becoming a CASA [volunteer] was to help kids,” she says. “So many of these kids need someone on their team, and it just breaks my heart that many do not have that.”

Dufour has worked with eight children during the four years, the youngest 2 years old and the oldest 18. She presently represents three children—two children who are both 12 and a 17-year-old. “I find I feel more useful working with older children. These are difficult cases, because it’s hard to find foster homes for them.

“Besides going to court with them, I visit my [assigned] kids wherever they happen to be placed,” Dufour adds. “Depending on the family situation, sometimes I’m a bolster to boost the relationships between them and their parents, but in some cases I am all they have. In those cases, I try to have a bigger presence. I do lunches on family day [at school]. Sometimes, I sit with them in a waiting room at a doctor’s office or take late-night phone calls or meet them for lunch. My [CASA] kids know they can call me at any time.

“The most rewarding part,” Dufour says, “is knowing that these kids might have a chance if they know someone believes in them. I love seeing them succeed even in the smallest of their battles. The most difficult part for me is the uphill battle of making sure these kids have the tools they need to survive and succeed when they become adults. Being a volunteer, plain and simple, brings me joy.”

‘The greatest reward’

Pekin, Ind., resident George Wright has been a CASA volunteer for more than six years, representing five children from age 6 months to 10 years old. He and his wife Linda have four adult children and eight grandchildren.

Wright, a former teacher, says, “Considering my skill set and training, CASA seemed like an ideal fit for me after I retired.

“I was raised in a small town north of Evansville with the typical small-town experience,” Wright says, “which included being an altar boy and a Boy Scout. Experiences like these and the examples of my parents taught me that a person should give back more to society than they take from society.”

He visits with his CASA children at their foster homes or at school once a month or, depending on the case, more frequently.

“The most valuable lesson I glean from being a CASA [volunteer],” Wright says, “is not to take for granted my family, or the efforts of multiple generations to become what we are—and what I hope we become in future generations.”

He appreciates “the knowledge that I have touched the future and probably changed the lives of children yet born, due to the cyclical nature of child abuse and neglect—that is the greatest reward.”

Being a CASA volunteer has its difficult side as well. Wright says the hardest part is “going through the Termination of Parental Rights procedure with a case. No parent starts out by saying, ‘I intend to make my child’s life miserable.’ Yet that is the end result of some parental actions or inactions. Caring for a child emotionally is not tantamount to taking care of a child on a day in, day out basis. The heartache for both the parent and the child keeps me awake at night, even though I know that in the long run it is best for the child.”

‘The eyes and ears of the court’

In Floyd County, volunteers accompany children to appearances before Circuit Court Judge Terrence Cody. In Washington County, their cases are overseen by Circuit Court Judge Larry Medlock.

“The judges both have a lot of respect for our CASA program and certainly for the volunteers,” Mefford says. “They make doing this work easier than it would be otherwise.”

Cody says, “Whenever a new group of volunteers is introduced to me, before the swearing-in ceremony, I tell them that I look at them as the eyes and ears of the court regarding what is going on in the life of the child and the lives of the parents. CASA volunteers are officers of the court, which gives them the special status of being able to gather information and advocate for what is in the child’s best interest.

“The need for volunteers is immense,” Cody continues. “In the past, we actually had a volunteer for every child, but not in the past five or six years. We’ve had an explosion of cases in the last three years, due to the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic.

“These volunteers become very invested in what they do,” he adds. “The CASA volunteers have my utmost respect for what they do for me, not to mention what they do for a child.”

Medlock also has praise for the volunteers. “It takes a special individual to become a CASA volunteer and involve themselves in the system,” he says. “I have to make determinations based on the information available to me, and sometimes there are nuances that the legal system doesn’t take into consideration. CASA volunteers fill in the blanks. There are situations that might not be rectified if not for their willingness to participate. I’m extremely grateful to them.”

Medlock says the younger the child, the greater the need for representation by a CASA volunteer. He points out, “Many of the children are very young, and their parents have been their whole world. Many of the cases we get are newborns—they have no voice. Debbie [Mefford] and her staff make sure they do have a voice through a CASA volunteer. Older children have a limited perspective on what is wrong, but they don’t know what is best for them. CASA volunteers expand their world.”

(Patricia Happel Cornwell is a freelance writer and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon. For more information on St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Charities CASA program in Floyd and Washington counties, visit www.stecharities.org/programs or www.facebook.com/CASAFloydWashington.)

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