By Ed Brock
Somebody has to speak for children who are victims of abuse, especially during this month that is dedicated to educating the public about child abuse.
That's the mission that draws 59-year-old volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate Lovette Bennett of Hampton.
"When they're four years old, children don't have a voice," Bennett said.
During April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month, CASA volunteers will be the guests of honor at a banquet on April 24. Workers from the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services, along with DFCS workers from Henry, Fayette and Fulton counties, will hold an event at Peachtree Peddlers in McDonough to provide information on abuse, adoption and becoming foster parents.
On April 9 Gov. Sonny Perdue will sign the child endangerment act into law. The act makes it a felony to endanger a child in any way including leaving them in a hot car or making drugs like methamphetamine in a child's presence, said Phil Kouns, director of the Rainbow House children's shelter.
The law is a highlight of the month's activities, Kouns said.
"It's taken a very long time to happen. We're the last state in the union to pass a child endangerment law," Kouns said.
And today the directors of those departments will meet at the Atlanta Airport Marriott hotel for the "State of the Children" breakfast meeting.
During fiscal year 2003 Clayton County DFCS received 2,028 complaints of child abuse and substantiated 748 of those claims. They processed a total of 1,030 children, of which 539 remained in state custody, DFCS Deputy Director Chuck Fischer said.
The number of abuse cases in the county is definitely on the upswing, Fischer said.
"What we're seeing is more complex situations," Fischer said.
In other words, more cases in which, for example, the child is not only being beaten but the parents are abusing drugs and so forth.
Economic troubles such as unemployment can be a factor in child abuse cases.
"I think you can say that adds to the pressure," Fischer said.
Part of DFCS' approach to deprivation cases that can lead to abuse is to offer job counseling, Fischer said.
CASA volunteers like Bennett assist DFCS by following the child through the system and looking after their needs, CASA Program Coordinator Gerald Bostock said.
From July 2002 to June 2003 Clayton County CASA received 2,127 allegations of abuse, Bostock said. Included in that number were 1,500 allegations of neglect, 457 allegations of physical abuse, 109 cases of sexual abuse, 31 allegations of emotional abuse and 30 allegations of children exposed to illegal drugs.
Of the 2,127 allegations, 932 were substantiated, Bostock said, meaning CASA actually found 678 cases of neglect, 178 cases of physical abuse, 38 cases of sexual abuse, nine cases of emotional abuse and 29 drug exposure cases.
In her two years as a volunteer Bennett has handled four cases, two of which led to the child's placement in another home.
"It's a long process of working with the parents, working with the judges," Bennett said.
A CASA volunteer has to be able to recognize the signs of abuse even in children who are too young to communicate verbally.
"You can tell who they like to be around and who they're afraid of," Bennett said.
Six-year CASA volunteer and Morrow Fire Chief David Wall got involved in CASA after experiencing frustration with the system while he worked as a paramedic.
"I've seen children whose cases fell between the cracks and they didn't get the attention they needed, with tragic consequences," Wall said. "In CASA you actually can make a difference."
Marlette Johnson of College Park, who is in her last month of training as a CASA volunteer, also thinks abuse and neglect cases can't be allowed to fall through the cracks of the system.
"Not just in our state but nationally this is urgent," Johnson said. "We just don't have enough DFCS workers to handle all of the cases."
That's why Child Abuse Awareness Month is important, Bennett said.
"Maybe it will get more people to volunteer for CASA," Bennett said. "We could use the help."
For more information on CASA call Bostock at (770) 477-3268.