The need for a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is outpacing recruitment of these volunteers who serve the best interests of neglected and abused children in the court system.

Advocates for Children, an organization that helps such children by recruiting and training CASA volunteers, served 841 children in Bartholomew, Jennings and Decatur counties in 2016, more than a 25 percent increase from the prior year.

Last year, Advocates for Children had 108 active CASA volunteers for the three counties — including 71 specifically for Bartholomew County — and trained and activated 30 new volunteers, said Therese Miller, Advocates for Children’s executive director.

However, recruiting enough volunteers has been difficult, and Bartholomew County has experienced a drop in the number of active CASAs and others who are going through training.

As a result, children remain on a waiting list for a CASA. Bartholomew County had 274 children on the waiting list as of March 31.

“Using the volunteer model is the preferred method. We’d like to have a volunteer for every child,” Miller said.

Advocates for Children has tried to meet that need by hiring seven guardians ad litem (GAL) to serve the three counties.

The GAL program started as a pilot in 2014 in Jennings County because the number of children needing services there rose dramatically and outpaced volunteer recruitment, Miller said.

A GAL performs the same duties as a CASA volunteer, but is a paid staff member and handles more cases. Because they handle more cases, they don’t meet with the children as often as the CASA volunteers.

Funding for the GAL positions comes from a combination of public-sector and private-sector grants and fundraising events, which also makes funding them a challenge each year, Miller said.

“If I could find more money, I would use it to hire more paid staff,” Miller said.

She figures it would cost about $160,000 to fund four additional GAL for a year.

Miller and John Nickoll, program director for Advocates for Children, said they are considering additional options about how to provide the services the children need to ensure they have proper representation, while also balancing their shortage of volunteers and limited funding. They noted that a nearby county is considering paying volunteers a monthly stipend in exchange for handling 10 cases each.

However, no changes are imminent locally.

“We haven’t implemented anything because we have not come up with anything good enough,” Miller said.

How to become a CASA

A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is a community resident who volunteers, is trained to represent the best interests of neglected and abused children in the court system, and is appointed by a judge.

The volunteer provides the judge with carefully researched factual information about the child and family to help make an informed decision about what is best for each child.

Volunteers must be at least 21 years old.

CASA volunteers spend an average of 10 hours per month on their cases, and remain with them until they are resolved.

Duties include: Visiting the children, attending team meetings involving the parents and children, attending court hearings, and reaching out to anyone who has contact with the child.

To become a CASA, first go online at apowerfulvoice.org/casa. Then complete the online form and submit it.

Information: apowerfulvoice.org, or 812-372-2808.

— Source: Advocates for Children

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.