By Jason A. Smith
A local organization dedicated to giving a voice to the voiceless, will celebrate a milestone later this week.
Clayton County Court Appointed Special Advocates will mark a decade of service to local residents, by swearing in new volunteers at a ceremony Wednesday. The event will take place at 3 p.m., in the historic courthouse in Jonesboro, located at 121 S. McDonough St.
CASA Training Supervisor Becky Galbreath said volunteers with the group perform a valuable service to area children who have been abused. "They are assigned to a foster child or group of children, who are placed in the juvenile court system, because of abuse or neglect," Galbreath explained. "CASA volunteers ... speak up for the best interests of the children they represent. Their goal is to find a safe and permanent home for the children, as quickly as possible."
Each potential volunteer, she said, must complete 40 hours of training to be in the CASA program. After they fulfill their course requirements, they are given an oath and deemed officers of the court.
The supervisor said CASA volunteers are well-received by juvenile courts in Clayton, because of the level of interaction they have with their clients. She said the group has played an important role in the outcome of court proceedings in which abuse is alleged.
"Volunteers are able to find out more information than others involved in those cases, because they are only assigned to one family at a time," Galbreath said. "I've personally seen cases where involvement by CASA has been a turning point in the outcome of a case."
During Wednesday's ceremony, 18 local residents from Clayton and Henry counties will be sworn in by Judge Martha Glaze. Galbreath said the judge's inclusion in the event is significant, as Glaze was "instrumental" in helping to bring CASA to Clayton in 1998.
CASA volunteers, said Galbreath, are required to go through an application process that includes an interview, orientation and thorough background check, before being allowed to serve.
Participants in the program are recruited from local communities in a variety of ways, according to Program Director Gerald Bostock. Those avenues include speaking engagements, fund-raisers, word of mouth and a national advertising campaign.
"[Those efforts] allow us to educate the community on how important it is to be aware of the program, so we can get advocates to be the voice of victims of abuse and neglect," he said.
All CASA organizations across the country, the director said, follow a national curriculum. This, Bostock said, allows the program to maintain consistency and credibility in the areas in which they serve.
Bostock explained the goal of the CASA program in Clayton is to have an advocate for every local victim of child abuse. Currently, approximately 30-35 percent of those in the juvenile court system in the county are not paired up with a CASA volunteer.
Still, the director said notable progress has been made in the program locally since 2003, when only 20 percent of abuse victims had a designated CASA advocate. Bostock credited the Clayton County Board of Commissioners and the court system, with helping to expand CASA's reach.
"We're actually the largest program in the state," the director said. "Last year, we advocated for 684 children. It's been a true team effort to get us to where we are today, but we're not going to settle for that. We want to do better."
The next CASA class is scheduled for July 28. For more information on the program, call (770) 477-3268, or (678) 873-9277, or visit www.claytoncasa.com.