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The number of abused and neglected children in Bartholomew County needing an advocate to help them through the court system already has outpaced the total for all of 2012 — with more than two months left in the year.
The 237 children this year compares to 207 for 2012 and 200 in 2011.
The youths are assigned Court Appointed Special Advocates after a judge determines they are a Child in Need of Services (CHINS).
CHINS cases are handled through the Indiana Department of Child Services, and a CASA’s role is to research the child’s and family’s situation over a year or more and make a recommendation to the judge.
Therese Miller, executive director of the local Advocates for Children office that oversees and trains CASAs, said the advocates represent the best interest of the child.
The children typically have been removed from their homes and are placed in foster or group homes or some other alternative-living arrangement.
“It’s been determined the intervention of the court is necessary to give them a safe living environment,” Miller said.
The number of children needing help because of abuse or neglect has resulted in a growing CASA waiting list. At last count, about 28 children needed CASAs in Bartholomew County. More than 170 more children were on waiting lists in Decatur and Jennings counties.
Columbus resident Jeanie Gravins, who has volunteered as a CASA for seven years, said seeing a successful ending makes her time well spent.
“You know you’ve done a good job when they become independent,” Gravins said. “That is the best feeling in the world.”
Gravins said she thought for a long time about being a CASA volunteer but always hesitated. She finally decided one day to help the children.
She went through CASA training, which includes attending sessions two nights a week for six weeks.
Gravins, 67, said the thorough training helped prepare her for the work and how to make the best recommendations about the child to the judge.
A grandmother of two and retired Arvin Industries worker, Gravins said some weeks are challenging and emotional. Others are
“It makes you feel good to help,” said Gravins, who recommends others consider volunteering. “You just don’t know how great the need is.”
Rick Scalf, Advocates for Children community outreach coordinator, said CASA volunteers come from all walks of life. The agency’s records, however, show that 80 percent are female, 63 percent have full- or part-time jobs and 60 percent are college graduates.
“The common thread is these are people who have a great concern for children,” Scalf said.
“They say, ‘I’m going to step up for this child in the middle of the most vulnerable time of their life.”
Advocates for Children tell volunteers that after the training they can expect to spend 10 to 15 hours a month on their cases, although the amount varies depending on the child and the circumstances.
“I understand it’s a real commitment,” Scalf said. “But I cannot imagine a more impactful role that will last a generation. It can help break the cycle of abuse.”
Reasons for increase
Heather Mollo, Bartholomew County Circuit Court magistrate, said the numbers of children involved in CHINS cases keep rising. She remembers the cases being almost half the current figure five years ago.
This year’s increase, however, highlights several concerns seen in families with young children.
Mollo said she has seen more cases of cocaine use and parents abusing children younger than 5.
“Cocaine seems to be a trend-setter drug, although meth is often a drug of choice,” Mollo said.
Signs of physical abuse range from facial bruising to internal organ damage.
Mollo said local officials have a good working relationship with Indiana University Health Riley Hospital in Indianapolis to have children quickly evaluated and treated.
Miller said about 95 percent of children involved in CHINS cases are referred because of either substance abuse or mental health issues within the home.
“These are trends that we are challenged with, and it’s difficult for us to keep pace to have enough CASAs,” Miller said.
Statewide, numbers for substantiated cases of child abuse, neglect and sexual abuse all increased between 2008 and 2010, the latest year when statistics were available.
“Numbers are going up, significantly going up,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute.
Substantiated child physical abuse cases in Indiana, for example, increased 15.7 percent from 2009 to 2010, and substantiated cases of child neglect were up 19.4 percent during the same time period.
“There’s no one simple reason why,” Stanczykiewicz said.
“It’s often substance abuse, or it can be the economy and stress, but that doesn’t absolve parents or others for what they have done to the child.”
Stanczykiewicz said children often suffer the rest of their lives because of the abuse and are at greater risk for negative behaviors, such as substance abuse or becoming someone who also abuses a child or spouse.
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