An agency that provides trained volunteers to look out for the best interests of children in the court system because of abuse or neglect added 16 to its ranks at the start of the month.
Columbus-based Advocates for Children officials said the latest class of Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers is the largest in about eight years.
While that’s good news for the organization, the bad news is many more classes of that size are needed to help meet the growing needs and challenges it faces.
Advocates for Children serves kids in Bartholomew, Jennings and Decatur counties.
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The total number of children the agency served in Bartholomew County last year grew nearly 5 percent, to 456 — with 84 percent of the cases involving substance abuse.
The total number of children on a waiting list grew more than 14 percent from 2016 to 2017, to 349 by the end of last year — although the 46-child wait list in Bartholomew County increased by only one.
Children served by Advocates for Children are the most vulnerable in the community, and every single one needs someone advocating for their interests, said Therese Miller, the agency’s executive director.
“It’s the least we can do. As a community, we need to wrap our arms around them,” she said.
Data collected by the Indiana Youth Institute for its 2018 Kids County in Indiana Data Book illustrates concerning trends for Bartholomew County, including:
Child neglect cases substantiated by the Department of Child Services increased from 247 to 288 from 2015 to 2016 — the most recent year of data in the report
The county’s child abuse/neglect rate per 1,000 children younger than 18 continued its annual climb, increasing from 15.9 percent in 2015 to 17.1 percent in 2016
The number of children in need of services identified by DCS jumped from 173 to 238 in 2016 — the largest total by far over the past five years
Cases filed to terminate parental rights more than tripled, jumping from 22 in 2015 to 69 in 2016
The goal for Advocates for Children is that with the help of CASA volunteers, children that have been removed from the home for their safety are eventually reunified with their parents — many of whom are struggling with drug addiction.
Methamphetamine is the most common illegal drug used by parents, according to Advocates for Children data.
While opioids kill people faster, meth holds its grip on people longer, said Rick Scalf, community outreach coordinator.
Although parents want to break free from addiction and get better, reunification with their children doesn’t always occur quickly, Miller said.
Sometimes cases take a year or more to resolve.
“This is really, really hard and challenging work,” Miller said.
Making a difference
Judy Rinehart said she had a sense of the challenge when she decided to become a CASA volunteer a year-and-a-half ago. But the challenge has been bigger than she anticipated.
“I expected to be an advocate for a child in court, but I’ve been an advocate for a child out of court as well,” said Rinehart, 56, of Columbus, an advocate for a teenage boy.
She talks to teachers and case managers, lends an ear when he needs to talk or vent. On average, Rinehart spends two to three hours a week on her child’s case, she said.
“You get a little more involved in their lives,” Rinehart said.
Rinehart said she became a CASA volunteer for a couple reasons. She had learned about the shortage of volunteers, and didn’t like the fact that some kids lacked someone looking out for their best interests in court. Through extended family, Rinehart said she has seen the chaos that drug addiction can create.
Although CASA volunteers typically have only one case at a time, Rinehart said she agreed to take on a second, because she knows the need is great.
“You really are in the middle of a family in turmoil, and it’s important to make a difference,” she said.
Rinehart’s willingness to take on a second case it a bit unusual, as a lot of volunteers decide to quit after one case, Miller said.
One of the reasons is the frustrations they experience working with Department of Child Services caseworkers, she said.
DCS has been under the microscope lately. Mary Beth Bonaventura resigned as director in December after blaming Gov. Eric Holcomb for cuts in services and changes in management that she said would “all but ensure children will die.”
A state consultant was hired to examine the child welfare agency. His initial findings showed that:
Case workers are undertrained.
Court delays occur in part by a lack of experienced attorneys.
The availability of substance abuse treatment is lacking.
“It’s no secret, everybody is under stress,” Scalf said.
CASA volunteers work with DCS in the management of their child’s case, including regular meetings. DCS case workers can help connect the child or family to services based on recommendations by CASA volunteers, said John Nickoll, Advocates for Children program director.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go smoothly. If CASA volunteers don’t get emails returned in a timely fashion by DCS caseworkers, then they can’t make decisions on next steps, Nickoll said.
Part of the problem is caseloads. While a CASA volunteer is typically responsible for one case, a DCS caseworker manages many, Nickoll said. Also, the turnover of DCS caseworkers means that a CASA volunteer may work with multiple DCS caseworkers over the life of the case, he said.
“The system is in trauma. There’s a lot on everyone’s plate and communication is sometimes difficult, and that is probably one of the reasons we see things slip through,” Nickoll said.
Another stress that Advocates for Children deals with annually is funding for its services. Some seed money from community organizations ended as expected after last year, meaning that one staff guardian ad litem (GAL) — essentially a full-time CASA — assigned to Bartholomew County couldn’t be funded this year, Miller said.
Fortunately, an agency in Decatur County provided funding for an additional GAL there, so the person just shifted duties to the neighboring county, Miller said.
However, tight funding means that Advocates for Children doesn’t have enough full-time CASA supervisors, Miller said. The state requirement is supposed to be one for every 30 CASA volunteers. The agency’s current ratio is 35 to 1. Without extra money, the agency can’t hire more supervisors, she said.
Although Advocates for Children is understaffed on supervisors, the 16 new CASA volunteers is a great step toward its annual goal of training 60, Miller said.
“I attribute it to more awareness about the addiction epidemic in (Bartholomew) county, and people are sort of realizing that impact adults struggling with addiction has on children,” Miller said.
The agency also has benefited from a Cummins community involvement team using its volunteer hours to lend a hand. One way they’re helping is distributing 1,000 posters around the community that explain how children are affected by the opioid crisis and how residents can help by becoming a CASA volunteer, Scalf said.
Scalf said more help from residents and local groups can help make a bigger impact.
“I hope the community steps up and makes a commitment. I think it’s in our character to do so,” he said.
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
What: Agency 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.
An interview with Terry Stigdon, Indiana’s new Department of Child Services director.
“The system is in trauma. There’s a lot on everyone’s plate and communication is sometimes difficult, and that is probably one of the reasons we see things slip through.”
— John Nickoll, Advocates for Children program director
What: Fifth annual Crooners for CASA fundraiser, which also marks the first week of National Child Abuse Prevention Month
When: 6:30 to 11 p.m. April 7
Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St., Columbus
Tickets: $50 apiece for first-come, first-serve seating, or $450 for a guaranteed table of eight. The ticket includes heavy hors d’oeuvres; a cash bar will be available. Tickets can be purchased online at croonersforcasa.com, or by calling the Advocates for Children office at 812-372-2808.
Notable: Teams of competitors perform karaoke-style numbers to compete for votes in the form of contributions to Advocates for Children.
6:30 to 7:30 p.m.: Social hour with cash bar and hors d’oeuvres
7:30 to 9: Karaoke competition
9:00 to 11: Results and awards, open mic and dancing