Workers to keep volunteer services

Children could lose one of their voices in court.

Kym klass
The Shreveport Times
February 9, 2004

With money being stripped from the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which is run through the Volunteers for Youth Justice, many juveniles in the court system could lose one of their main defenders.

CASA volunteers provide information to judges relative to the goal of a safe, permanent home for the child, taken from their home due to abandonment, abuse or neglect. The program needs more than $100,000 prior to August to keep afloat the number of children served. Without the money, more children will be without a volunteer.

CASA, whose goal is to get the child out of that overburdened system and into a permanent home as soon as possible, acts as the "eyes and ears" of the judge, as they seek to find information which is pertinent to the child's permanent placement. CASAs talk to everyone involved in the child's case - biological parents, relatives, foster parents, teachers, counselors, attorneys, caseworkers, and the child, as they seek to provide a written report to the judge.

For three years, CASA has been supported through federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which has financially allowed CASA to expand its services from Caddo - where it began in 1992 - to four additional parishes: Bossier, Webster, Desoto and Sabine.

The TANF funding stream will no longer be available to any Louisiana CASA program after August.

"As soon as we were made aware that this funding source was ending, we began aggressively seeking every known funding source available, and have been successful in raising approximately one-third of that goal to date," said Laura Goodwin, executive director of the VYJ, adding the original amount the VYJ faced was about $150,000. "While we recognize that our need is great and urgent, our board's outlook is optimistic, committed and determined to continue to provide these important services."

Nanette White, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said TANF is still getting $164 million in federal funding. Decisions about where the funding will go will be via the legislative process. The legislative session begins March 29.

"What has happened in the past year, is we had money in the state general fund and that has all been utilized," White said. "There was about $55 million that was spent over several years for TANF-funded programs."

For now, CASA programs aren't guaranteed federal money. It does receive other funding from Crime Victims Act, First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport and the national CASA, which it lived on before TANF funding allowed the agency to stand by more children in court. The amount from other entities is enough to keep volunteer services, but not enough to serve the number of children the agency is accustomed to.

Judy Roemer has been a volunteer CASA for seven years. She's been the voice for about 10 children in the court system, ages ranging from 18 months to 11 years old.

"I know this makes a difference," Roemer said. "I have worked within a lot of charities in my adult life ... . I never doubted this has value.

"I think the judge always listens; a majority of the time, we make a difference. We don't get exactly what we want, but we get better than if we didn't exist."

There are about 1,400 children in foster care in the five parishes served, meaning more than 1,000 children still need a CASA.

"Given that the average stay in Louisiana's foster care system of 3.4 years is reduced to 18 months when a CASA volunteer is assigned, we simply cannot ignore this need," Goodwin said. "The expansion into the four other parishes tripled the number of children served by CASA over the last 2 years. During 2003, VYJ provided a CASA volunteer to 368 children who were placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect.

"Because we were able to receive this funding, we experienced a growth factor of 228 percent of children served over the last two years. The value of a CASA is demonstrated by the time they have to commit to a single case, versus the overwhelming caseloads that must be borne by caseworkers and attorneys.

"Unfortunately, because the child welfare system is so overburdened, the child is often unintentionally re-victimized by the very system designed to protect him."

CASA uses its money to pay salaries for volunteer supervision - one supervisor can monitor up to 30 volunteers - as well as for lease agreements.

Without the money, VYJ won't be able to serve as many children with a CASA volunteer.

"Everyone would like for the children to have the best possible home that's available," Roemer said. "You advocate for the children; they've either been removed from the parents for either abandonment, abuse or neglect. The courts determine the parent is not advocating in their best interest, so they appoint someone to be that advocate.

"The child has an attorney, and they have a social worker and the judge ... all those people are looking out for that child, too."

To volunteer

Attend one of the following training sessions to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer: Feb. 17 at 11:30 a.m. or 6:30 p.m., Feb. 19 at 11:30 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. or Feb. 21 at 10 a.m.

CASAs must be 21 years old and willing to submit to a criminal history check. Call the Volunteers for Youth Justice CASA office at (318) 221-CASA (2272) for more information.


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