By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, which provides volunteer advocates to children involved in deprivation cases, has reached a milestone.
With the induction of 14 new CASA volunteers on Wednesday, the number of county volunteers reached 200, making Clayton CASA the only CASA program in the metro area able to supply a volunteer to every neglected or abused child in the juvenile court system.
The county celebrated the milestone during a special swearing-in ceremony at the Historic Clayton County Courthouse. State CASA officials, county commissioners, and juvenile court judges gathered on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate CASA's efforts and welcome the new volunteers.
"With this class, we will be serving 100 percent of the children in state care," said Gerald Bostock, child-welfare services coordinator for the Clayton County Juvenile Court and head of the CASA program. "It has historically been a long-term goal for us ... because of the hard work of our volunteers, we have reached this milestone. Every child that falls into the system will be able to have an advocate.
"We are the first metro-Atlanta CASA program to be serving 100 percent of the children in our care," he continued. "The last number from Georgia CASA is that our closest competitor is Cobb County and they are only serving 33 percent, so we have sprinted far ahead of the pack."
Clayton County Chief Juvenile Judge K. Van Banke swore in the 14 new CASA volunteers, all of whom had successfully completed 40 hours of classroom training and courtroom observation. During the ceremony, Banke highlighted the role CASA volunteers play in getting to the truth in juvenile court proceedings.
"You all are, to a courtroom, what a Delta mechanic is that comes on his day off to repair an engine," Banke said. "The CASA volunteer is one of the most valuable people in the court, because you do things that other people don't have time to do."
Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske illustrated to new CASA volunteers the importance they can play in locating suitable foster relatives for children experiencing abuse or neglect. In a speech, he recalled a case in which two boys had been removed from the home of an abusive father and a CASA volunteer had located the boys' mother in New Orleans, La.
"When DFACS [the Department of Family and Children Services], with all of its resources, couldn't find the mother, it was a CASA volunteer that found her ... not in Clayton County, not in Atlanta, but in New Orleans," Teske said. "Your voice is powerful. You have a connection with this child that the judge doesn't have. You have a connection that the lawyer doesn't have. We can put people in jail, we can take away people's parental rights ... but we understand what is most powerful is what you can do working one on one with kids."
Georgia CASA Executive Director Duaine Hathaway said Clayton CASA's achievement of being able to assign a CASA volunteer to every child-welfare case in the county demonstrates the community's support for the program.
"Statewide, we are at about 45 percent," in terms of supplying CASA volunteers to children involved in juvenile deprivation cases, Hathaway said. "Our hope is that every child has a safe and happy home. Having each child have a CASA volunteer is a big step toward that vision. Clayton County CASA is really a model for other CASA organizations. I think it speaks volumes. The judges, the courts, and the county leadership understand the importance of CASA volunteers advocating for the children's best interests."
Bostock said that all CASA volunteers are unpaid and that the number of county volunteers demonstrates the community's willingness to "step up to the plate" for children.
"Most of these kids will have multiple case workers throughout the course of their case, and unfortunately, they will probably have multiple foster-care placements," Bostock said. "The CASA volunteer can serve as that one, consistent face while they are thrown into the chaotic child-welfare system. This shows that we do have people in our community that are willing to say, enough is enough, these kids do not deserve to walk through this process alone, and we are going to do whatever it takes to help."