CASA, the Spanish translation for home. It’s only fitting that the acronym for a nonprofit agency devoted to providing a voice for children subjected to the court system should spell the same.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) by the Lakes, is a volunteer organization made up of residents of Marshall and Calloway counties who serve as a mentor and advocate for children often adrift in the family court system. Volunteers build relationships with those children – who have been removed from the custody of their parents – and provide additional perspective for family court judges as they determine the best course of action for the child.
Local CASA Director Angelia Boyd said it’s about building a bond with a child in a time where they may have no other stability in their life.
“They get moved around a lot, they usually have more than one social worker, so they don’t have anyone in their life that’s constant,” Boyd said. “We’re there through the entire process. And, you know, some of our volunteers – you only have to go see them once a month, but normally what happens is you get so involved that you want to see them more, and the kids love it. So, we go eat lunch with them or see them afterward at the park or whatever just to keep that bond going so they can share with us if they’re OK, if they need anything. If we see that they need any resources, we try to hook them up. Maybe they need to be in an after school activity, counseling. You know, if they need clothing or food – whatever they may need – we just try to make sure that they’re in a good place and that everything is OK. … I always try to stress that the main goal is just to be there for the child.”
And it’s a necessary role within the system. According to the National CASA Association annual report for 2016, nationwide, state organizations served 280,316 children. Still, more than 400,000 children remained in need of someone to advocate for their best interests. The number of children in foster care nationwide has increased by 8 percent in the last five years, according to the report, and the trend isn’t expected to slow any time soon.
Kentucky is equally susceptible to the increasing demand. According to the report, the state has the highest percentage of child homelessness in the nation, and the growing opioid epidemic has left its mark. According to CASA by the Lakes data, some 24,298 children are circulating in the Kentucky family court system. A child will spend an average of 20 months in the foster care network and change homes three times.
Boyd said numbers are growing locally, as well, and volunteers between counties are “maxed out.” Volunteers are given no more than two cases at a time; remaining cases are often divided up among CASA staff members.
Thus far in 2017, CASA by the Lakes has served 100 children, up from the 96 children served in all of 2016. The vast majority of cases Boyd said she’s seen in her two years with the local organization have been drug – particularly meth – related.
“I would venture to say 98 percent of our cases are drug related,” she said. “So, it’s a big deal.”
CASA has worked to strengthen its network in Kentucky in the past year to meet the growing need, and so, too, at the local level. CASA by the Lakes has been located in Murray since its inception, but as of September has opened a second location in the old Courthouse at 1101 Main St. in Benton. The new office provides not only a base within the county, but also a safe zone for kids. Boyd said space was available for children to meet with their families in a supervised setting; equipped with plenty of activities, children may spend time with their CASA volunteer or have a haven in which to retreat, as well.
The hope is that physical location will also serve to strengthen the organization’s local volunteer base, which Boyd said was desperately needed, to provide for more children in the area. While the nonprofit has 26 ready volunteers with four more in training, only five of those are located in Marshall County.
“Most of our Marshall cases … we have to spread them out to our staff,” Boyd said. “… There’s not that many people willing to drive from Calloway all the time to see Marshall kids. You know, I think that it needs to be Marshall citizens anyway, because Marshall is such a strong, tight-knit community that I think if the community is standing up to help these children that they know better what they need in this community.”
Boyd said just about anyone can step up to help serve the need, too. Potential volunteers must pass a background check, and submit to 30 hours of initial training, plus ongoing yearly training. Boyd said there are no special educational requirements to volunteer; however, perspective volunteers must not be involved in any open cases in court, and must take a sworn oath of confidence. The group will also check character references.
It’s not an easy role to fill, however. Boyd said it was a great responsibility to have the direction of a child’s life on a volunteer’s shoulders. In addition to forming that relationship with the child, volunteers write recommendations on the child’s situation to the judge. It can be stressful, but Boyd said it was altogether worth it.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s just such a reward to see these children turned around,” Boyd said. “Because a lot of them, they don’t have anything good or positive in their life. They’ve never had that role model to show them that life can be better. To just get in there and speak love to them and encourage them, you just see a change in these children.
“We’re hoping to break that cycle,” she added. “Because they grow up and they think that it’s normal to sit in their house and take drugs or drink or live in – whatever their case is – and we just try to show them there’s more out there than that. … It’s just about helping that child to not be defined by their past. To get in there and advocate for them and know they’re not alone and there’s someone there for them. That to me is what it’s all about.”
Residents may help in other ways than working directly with children, though. Boyd said volunteers were always needed to assist in the office or with other activities.
Money is always needed for a nonprofit, as well. The organization depends primarily on grants and fundraising efforts, and donations were welcomed.
Marshall Countians can assist in the effort and have a little fun this weekend, too. CASA will host its annual chili challenge and carnival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 at Mike Miller Park in Draffenville. The event will offer residents the chance to taste some of the best chili around from area competitors hoping to win the prize for the best batch; volunteers and staff will accept donations to allow tasting of each entry. Participants will then vote for their favorite and dine on a full bowl. Competitors will dress up for the costume contest as well, though event-goers may also participate. This year’s costume theme is “your favorite movie.”
In addition, the event will host a petting zoo and fall festival games, such as a cake walk and face-painting activities. Teams of two may compete in the cornhole tournament, and staff will have inflatables on site for the kids.
To learn more about CASA by the Lakes and its services or to donate, visit casabythelakes.org or follow the organization on Facebook. To download an application to volunteer, find more about requirements or set up an interview, click here.