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15 to join child advocates

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Tonight, 15 people will raise their hands and be sworn in as Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers.

They join the 200 CASA volunteers in Clayton County, doing "one of the most challenging types of volunteer work there is," and expanding what is already the state's largest force of child advocates, said Gerald Bostock, child welfare services coordinator.

"They become the eyes and ears for the judge," Bostock said. "The volunteer becomes the child's voice in the court room."

Last year, Clayton County's CASA volunteers worked on 590 cases, reporting to juvenile judges and representing children in cases of abuse and neglect; evaluating children's placement, and attempting to help the children avoid foster care, or move through the foster system quickly to a permanent home.

The county had the largest number of CASA volunteers in Georgia, and the volunteers had the largest number of cases, two statistics that Bostock said speaks well for the county.

"There are a lot of caring people here in Clayton County, who really feel the need," he said, "who have a desire to help a child that needs a voice. We see all the time, on the news, where a child has fallen through the cracks. We have these great CASA volunteers, who step up and say, 'I'm not going to let a child fall through the cracks.'"

Currently, CASA volunteers are working with 140 cases of children in foster care, about that same number in relative care, and 26 cases of children in custody disputes.

Juvenile Judge Steve Teske said the volunteers fill a very important role for the judges. "We understand how important it is that children who've been abused and neglected have a voice in court, and it's very important that judges, in court, have as much information as possible," he said. "[Without the volunteers] we would be getting less relevant information about what's happening in a case. That would increase the risk of judges not making the best placement decisions, without that type of role being played."

The CASA volunteers, Teske said, have a role that "focuses only on the children," protecting them and filling the cracks in an overburdened system.

They work closely with the Department of Family and Children Services, but, unlike the DFCS employees, CASA volunteers take a small caseload and only a few, specific tasks.

"DFCS is so overwhelmed and they're underpaid," Teske said, "so they can't see every kid as often as they would like to, but a CASA volunteer can go in there, and doesn't have to worry about all the paperwork, doesn't have to worry about all the other things DFCS workers have to worry about ... Having CASA is extremely important. It plays a vital role to protecting children."

Bostock said the CASA volunteers work very closely with the DFCS workers. The legal system and the foster care system, though, can be fast and chaotic, and children, who have been abused or neglected, need someone who can listen to them and advocate for them in the midst of that whirlwind.

"Their voices could possibly be overwhelmed," Bostock said. "Unfortunately, we're probably the most consistent thing that child has, during the cycle of that case."

Last month, Judge Teske wrote an article in the Georgia Bar Journal arguing that all children, in the juvenile court system, ought to have lawyers representing their legal interests and advocates, like CASA's volunteers, representing their personal interests.

"The CASA volunteer and the child's attorney are an effective and powerful team," he wrote.

Teske said he's pleased the county has such a large number of CASA volunteers, and he would like to see the program grow until there is a volunteer dedicated to every child in the juvenile system.

"We're pretty close to it," he said. "We're not there, yet. If we get 50 to 75 more, we'll be there."

Tonight, the county will have 15 more sworn child advocates in the court, working with the judges and trying to represent the children's interests.

Anyone interested in working with CASA is asked to call (770) 477-3268.