Mother Teresa once said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

Poverty starts in the homes when basic psychological human needs are not being met. When a child does not feel loved, they cannot thrive in their early development. A child must feel that they can trust their caregivers. A child must have their basic needs, such as water, shelter, food, sleep, air, and clothing. They must have their psychological needs met. A child needs a nurturing environment to continue to flourish in life. However, humanity struggles. That is just the truth we have to face. Life is hard. A lot of people don’t have the resources that they need or they don’t have the physical capability to get the resources they need. As overall mental health declines. As proper education declines in some areas. When parents aren’t taught how to be good parents by their parents for some reason or another, the families suffer. The children suffer. Being no fault of their own but simply that these individuals weren’t taught how to be respectable parents. No one ends up off track because they want to. There were just a series of events and somehow they ended up where they didn’t want to be. We don’t blame the parents or their parents. We certainly don’t blame the children. However, something must be done to help parents get back on track. Someone must fight on the front lines to keep families together and thriving.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) do just that. CASA is a non-profit which shows unconditional love for the children they encounter every day by working their hardest to find a good resolution for the child’s situation. Rockdale CASA has a primary purpose of being the voice for a child in court. The executive director, Lynn Killman says, “The mission is to get as many community volunteers as we can to make sure every child in foster care has an advocate assigned to them while they’re going through the process of foster care and their families being separated and then hopefully reunified.” Killman also emphasized that “Everything is with the idea of reunification.” CASA wants the children to be with their families. At the end of the day, family is the best place for a child, if at all possible. We try to encourage parents to work their case plan and do the things that Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has asked them to do so that they can better themselves and therefore better the lives of their children and be reunified as a family.

How does CASA do this? They have a volunteer staff who are each given one case and they become the constant in that case for the children they will be with. We try to get the volunteers to commit to at least a year, says Michele Benton. Oftentimes, the child will have 4 or 5 different case managers and 2 or 3 different therapists and they can get moved from foster home to foster home but hopefully, the relationship they have with the advocate will bring some stability to their life.

About 10 years ago, Killman was having a conversation with a volunteer about doing visitations for the children. A constant complaint they heard from the children was that they could not see their families. While it is necessary in many cases to remove children from their homes for their own safety, keeping a child away from the people they love most in the world can also be detrimental to their health. DFCS usually handles the visitations but sometimes they are just busy and it doesn’t work out. CASA saw a great need for a visitation center and they created a visitation room at the center. The room is furnished with couches, a dining table and chairs for family dinners, carpet for crawling babies and plenty of toys for children. CASA hosted over 500 visits with families and their children last year in the visitation center.

The visitation center is so busy that the phone is constantly ringing off the hook. The visitation center is really nice for those parents who are diligently working on their case plan. When a parent is actually working hard on their case plan, it warms the hearts of the volunteers at CASA. They want to reward these parents that are working hard by letting them have visitation with their children. They want to foster healthy and fun interactions between the parents and the children. CASA wants to be a catalyst for cultivating qualitative and sustainable relationships within families. These workers desire to see families together and functioning in appropriate ways. All visits are required to be supervised in some way at the visitation center. If it is just supervised, the volunteers can sit in on the visitation but sometimes they call for a parent aid to help the parent take care of the children. The parent aid can help the parent learn how to manage the children at the same time when they have children of multiple ages. The parent aid can also help with burping babies, changing diapers or feeding children if the parent does not know how to do these things.

CASA needs around 60 to 65 volunteers at all time. This is a huge need considering they currently have about 50 volunteers. The volunteers are on the front lines with these children. Building relationships. Recommending services for the children. Looking out for their overall health. The volunteers are asked to research the entire situation that brought the child into foster care and the best possible solutions. Whether that solution includes returning home to their family, going to live with relatives, whether short term or long term or possibly looking at adoption as the permanent solution. The volunteers are responsible for making sure that the children are getting the services that the law requires that DFCS provides to them. CASA volunteers make sure the therapist does the right assessments for the child. Ultimately, a CASA volunteer is a court advocate. While the volunteer is working on the case, they are also gathering information and creating a report to give to the judge. The volunteer makes recommendations to the judge on solutions for the child. The judge definitely reads the reports from the CASA volunteer. The volunteers are the ones who are really sowing into the lives of these children in need.

How can you become a volunteer for CASA? Well, I am glad you asked. The initial way is to go to the website to fill out the forms. You can download the basic application, fill it out and send it to Michele Benton at trainer@rockdalecasa.org. Michele will do a pre-service interview. They build a relationship on the phone and talk about requirements for being a volunteer. We do training classes after you have been approved to help equip volunteers. Training classes are usually at night so people who work can come to the training. Once you’re finished with the training, the juvenile judge will swear you in and then you will get a case. Sometimes volunteers are intimidated by getting a case after training but Lynn Killman and Michele Benton want to assure volunteers that they are always available to ask questions and to ask for help.

If you choose to volunteer, please know that you will be changing lives for the better by taking on this task. Through the use of trained and supervised volunteers, abused and neglected children will have an advocate to represent their best interest, to advocate for resources and to help the legal system be more child-focused, one child at a time; so that a child’s right to a permanent and safe home is ensured. CASA Rockdale, you are making our community a better place and on behalf of our community, thank you.

Lauren Roberts

Editor and Project Director of eMetro Times