Local News

March 15, 2014

Court-appointed special advocates serve vital role

The job promises no pay, little public recognition and the possibility of real heartbreak.

So why do people volunteer as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA)?

“I can think of very little else I could be doing that is as important, that could make as much difference in the life of child,” said Yvonne Otts, a Dalton resident and CASA.

CASAs are the advocates of children who have been taken from their families by the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and placed in foster care. The program currently has 25 volunteers in Whitfield and Murray counties. Officials say they would like to have at least 40 and are in serious need of volunteers.

“These aren’t children who have committed delinquent acts,” said Bruce Kenemer, CASA program director at the Family Support Council. “These are children who have been abandoned, have been neglected in some way. Their parents may be dealing with drugs or other significant issues.”

CASAs are the advocates of those children, their voice in Juvenile Court. Connie Blaylock, the juvenile court judge in both Whitfield and Murray counties, said their recommendations are taken very seriously.

“The CASA has the freedom to speak to everyone involved in the case and based on those interviews, make recommendations to the court and the Department of Family and Children Services about what ought to happen in a case,” Blaylock said. “Case managers don’t always have the luxury of the time to do as thorough a job of that. Also, often, people will speak to the child’s advocate candidly who might not be willing to do so with a case manager or attorney. And CASA can often obtain information about a case that is difficult if not impossible to obtain in a courtroom. In other words, they can have a more complete picture than we sometimes are able to obtain in a court hearing.”

Catherine Stratmann, who is a CASA volunteer in Whitfield County said the job can be complex but its goal is simple: “We are for the children. If we can help the parents in any way, we do. But we are there for the children.”

Diane Greene, a CASA volunteer supervisor, said CASAs must pass a background check, complete 10 hours of court observations and complete 30 hours of training.

“They have a manual that explains the foster system, talks about dealing with different cultures, with income diversity, all the issues they might deal with,” she said. “Then they are actually sworn in by the Juvenile Court judge.”

CASAs typically devote five to 15 hours a month to their cases.

“Some of them are more time consuming that others, and you will have to spend more time at the beginning of a case, investigating it, talking to people,” said Chelsea Moser, a CASA volunteer supervisor and former CASA. “As the case goes on they need to stay in contact with their child, talk to the foster parents, make sure the child is getting everything he or she needs.”

Blaylock said if someone is interested in becoming a CASA they should contact the Family Support Council at (706) 272-7919.

“That is the way to get connected to find out more about the program, and observe the program in action,” Blaylock said. “I would also advise that CASA volunteers work child abuse, neglect and molestation cases. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work.  It can be very painful, but also can be very meaningful and give a great sense of accomplishment.”

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