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Volunteers needed to help CASA

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Court Appointed Special Advocates might have to cancel a training class this month due to lack of volunteers, even as the agency is dealing with a record number of children needing its services.

The organization’s volunteers look after the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and in the community. Volunteer advocates research the child’s and family’s situation over a year or more and make a recommendation to the judge.

That recommendation provides judges with critical information they need to ensure that each child’s rights and needs are being considered while they are in foster care, said Therese Miller, Advocates for Children’s executive director.

The youths are assigned advocates after a judge determines they are a Child in Need of Services (CHINS).

The waiting list for these children has increased by 50 percent since last year, due to a record number of child abuse and neglect cases in Bartholomew, Decatur and Jennings counties, Miller said.

That means more than 350 children who were either abused or neglected in their original homes need someone to stand up for their welfare during intense and complex court proceedings, said Rick Scalf, the agency’s outreach coordinator.

“This year, we have seen a huge uptick in the number of CHINS cases,” Scalf said. “There have been points in time when it has been double what we saw last year. The need is incredibly pressing.”

About 30 new CASA volunteers have been trained and activated so far this year, Scalf said.

The combination of both increasing clients and decreasing volunteers has resulted in a unusually harsh double-whammy to the agency’s mission, he said.

While many who volunteer enjoy working one-on-one with children, the responsibilities of CASA volunteers often don’t provide advocates with that type of satisfaction, Scalf said.

“Maybe you won’t have the kid who comes up and puts his arms around you, but there are few things you can get into that are more rewarding than being a CASA volunteer,” Scalf said. “You can make changes in lives that could last for generations.”

While some other Indiana counties have similar waiting lists for advocates, this is the first time in Heather Mollo’s 15 years as the county’s juvenile magistrate that she’s seen such a list in Columbus.

She describes the shortage as a significantly missed voice in her courtroom.

“The CASA (volunteer) looks beyond a child’s safety,” Mollo said. “They provide me with a broad perspective

of the child’s education, how they are emotionally, and who are the essential connections in the child’s life. I can’t tell you how many times I’m making decisions concerning a child’s future, and wishing I had a CASA representing their best interests.”

The volunteer positions involve individuals representing some of the most vulnerable citizens in the community, Miller said.

“Through no fault of their own, they have found themselves in the child protection system, without many of the supports we take for granted. Only a CASA volunteer provides the focus on these children’s best interest that will give them the best chance to thrive in a safe, loving and permanent home,” she said.

The organization provides each volunteer with 30 hours of training. Each volunteer is then assigned to a staff case coordinator who assists them throughout the life of a case.

CASA volunteers spend an average of 10 hours per month on their casework and are asked to commit to the completion of at least one case, which can take up to two years.

A decision about whether to hold an August training class will be made within a week, Miller said.

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