An organization that represents the best interests of abused and neglected children in the court system is facing a greater challenge than ever before.

The number of children served by Advocates for Children has nearly doubled in five years, with the primary driver drug use by parents.

From 2012 to 2016, the number of children served by the Columbus-based agency in Bartholomew County jumped from 225 to 436, which is a 94 percent increase. During that same period, the percentage of those children who have at least one parent with a substance abuse problem rose from 72 percent to 95 percent.

However, 274 Bartholomew County children remained on a waiting list for assistance as of March 31 because of a local shortage of Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers.

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Advocates for Children assigns cases to CASAs, in which they represent one or more children.

“The need now is greater than ever. These are the most vulnerable children in the courts, within cases of substance abuse. It’s important their voices be heard,” said John Nickoll, Advocates for Children’s program director.

Charting trends

Statistics illustrate the increasingly difficult situation faced by Advocates for Children, which serves Bartholomew, Jennings and Decatur counties.Demographic data for Bartholomew County youths support Advocates for Children’s data.

The child abuse/neglect rate per 1,000 children under age 18 increased from 7 percent in 2012 to 15.9 percent in 2015, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.

Cases of neglect, in particular, are on the rise.

Bartholomew County neglect cases substantiated by the Department of Child Services increased from 98 in 2012 to 247 in 2015, the youth institute reported.

None of this is a surprise to Krisha Eckrote, a CASA volunteer in Bartholomew County for three-and-a-half years.

“I have never had a case that drug use was not a part of,” said Eckrote, who has handled nine cases serving 19 children.

Methamphetamine is the drug most abused by parents in Advocates for Children cases, the agency reports, with heroin use also on the rise.

Drug abuse by parents in these cases had increased almost eightfold, from affecting 25 children in 2012 to 195 in 2016, according to Advocates for Children data.

This trend highlights a broader problem, said Therese Miller, Advocates for Children’s executive director.

“We need a better continuum of services for drug treatment in the community,” Miller said.

Although Bartholomew County lacks an in-patient drug treatment facility, Miller said she is encouraged by recent local efforts to address the county’s drug problem, particularly opioid abuse.

“Moving the Needle: Community Forum” drew 650 residents to The Commons on April 19, and local stakeholders have created a task force, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) in Bartholomew County.

Improving the community’s continuum of services for drug addicts increases the likelihood that parents can kick the habit and be reunited with their children, Miller said.

“We need help providing stable homes for these children so they grow up as stable adults,” she said.

Impact of CASAs

Foster children without a CASA volunteer are 96 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crimes and 30 percent more likely to engage in substance abuse, according to Advocates for Children literature.State law requires that children have an unfettered voice from their parents in neglect and abuse cases, and CASA volunteers and Advocates for Children help fill that role, Bartholomew County Juvenile Magistrate Heather Mollo said.

“They’re essential for the work we do,” she said.

The challenges Bartholomew County faces — more children in need of services, more drug abuse by parents and not enough CASA volunteers — is occurring in other counties across the state, Mollo said.

It becomes obvious when a child is missing a dedicated voice of a CASA volunteer focusing on their needs, Mollo said.

“We see a difference in the quality of recommendation, what is done about educational concerns and keeping the holistic picture of the child,” she said.

The goal for CASA volunteers always is to reunite children with parents, Miller said. However, reunification sometimes is a lengthy process, taking a year or two.

Some of the cases involve extreme circumstances, which is why children are removed from their homes by the Department of Child Services.

One child remained in foster care or with relatives for one-and-a-half years because the parents had trouble kicking their drug habits, Miller said.

Some children have lived in homes that were filthy and had been without heat or running water for an extended period of time, Miller and Nickoll said.

Motivated to help

Eckrote recalled a case in which a toddler and an infant were left alone for 20 to 30 minutes. The toddler was alone outside the home, and the infant was found alone inside the home. She said she has had other cases in which the homes had no working utilities and no food, and were filthy with drug paraphernalia present.Eckrote’s reason for becoming a CASA volunteer is personal. Her niece and nephew were identified as children in need of services (CHINS) and paired with a CASA volunteer because her brother has battled drug addiction.

“They had a CASA in their case and I saw how hard they worked and tried to do what was best for the kids. I thought, ‘This seems to be a way I could do some good,’” Eckrote said.

Eckrote also saw her sister, Carrie Vawter, help neglected and abused children as a CASA volunteer a few years before she got involved.

Even though Eckrote works full time at Cummins Inc. as a project manager, and is raising four children with her husband — including her niece and nephew, of whom she gained legal custody — she makes sure to handle two CASA cases at all times.

Many CASA volunteers handle one family’s case at a time.

“It’s definitely a stretch to take two, but I hate that there is waiting list of kids,” the 35-year-old Eckrote said.

Eckrote said she spends about two hours per week on each case. That can include:

Visiting the children

Attending team meetings involving the parents and children

Attending court hearings

Reaching out to anyone who has contact with the child, such as school counselors, iGrad coaches and doctors

“I make a big effort to show the parents that I care about the child and the family and the relatives,” Eckrote said.

“These people, I know they love their kids and at the very least I can respect that and show I care,” she said.

Being a CASA isn’t for everyone, but Eckrote said it’s her passion, and a way to make a difference in the lives of children.

“I believe that this is my piece I am meant to help with,” she said.

About Advocates for Children

What: Organization that provides volunteers appointed by a judge, called Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), to represent the best interests of neglected and abused children in the court system.

Where: Serves children and families in Bartholomew, Jennings and Decatur counties.

How: Uses CASA volunteers and paid staff called guardians ad litem to handle the cases. CASA volunteers spend an average of 10 hours per month on their cases, and remain with them until they are resolved.

CASA duties: Visit the children, attend team meetings involving the parents and children, attend court hearings, reach out to anyone who has contact with the child.

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

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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.