Merlene Davis: Abused and neglected children need you as their advocate

Herald-Leader columnistApril 16, 2014 

  • Volunteer training for Court Appointed Special Advocates

    When: 5:30-8:30 p.m., May 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and June 5; 9 a.m.-1 p.m. May 10 and 17. Materials are free.

    Where: 1155 Red Mile Place.

    Registration: Call (859) 246-4313, or email mjamison@lexingtonky.gov.

Last year, the best interests of 171 abused and neglected children in the Fayette County Family Court was overseen by 60 volunteers with the Court Appointed Special Advocate of Lexington program.

With a strong advocate on their side, many of those children were able to leave foster care sooner and find a stable home where they would have an opportunity to flourish. They also had one familiar face they could connect with while they traversed a court system filled with unfamiliar adults.

Your applause is warranted and deserved. CASA volunteers do great work.

Earlier this year, the program added another volunteer manager, allowing more volunteers to sign on. A manager keeps track of about 30 volunteers and their cases. Some cases involve more than one child.

Unfortunately, life sometimes trumps volunteer work. Some volunteers might decide to help another organization. Or maybe their full-time employment changes and they can't devote the time required. Sometimes those who are retirees decide to travel a bit. There's nothing wrong with any of that.

But that means that the CASA program needs to find more volunteer advocates for those children.

Each volunteer receives 30 hours of training and various background checks, and is then sworn in by a judge. Child advocacy is serious business.

At a training session in January, when the new manager was added, about 30 people signed up, but only 22 graduated.

Melynda Milburn Jamison, CASA executive director, said some volunteers realize during training that the program isn't what they had envisioned. That's fine, Jamison said. No problem.

However, of the 22 who completed the training, 20 have cases they are watching. The other two are awaiting cases that fit their schedules.

So, Jamison is again asking folks of all cultures who are retired or employed, professional or blue-collar workers, male or female, to apply to become CASA volunteers and begin training May 1.

There are 1,000 children in Family Court who don't have an advocate, she said. They need you.

Most of the children are between 6 and 11 years old. The next-largest group is children 5 and younger. About 53 percent of the children are boys.

The last training class was unique and was celebrated throughout the country, Jamison said, because it featured 10 men, all of whom graduated.

"That is huge," she said. "We are among the top programs in the country (with that number of male volunteers)."

Most of the volunteers are white women, she said, and she has worked through mailings to churches to increase the diversity of the volunteers. "Volunteers who are African-Americans or Latino are always a need," she said. "Or volunteers who speak other languages."

Two recently trained volunteers who were bilingual were quickly placed, Jamison said.

Volunteers need to be at least 21 years old and must consent to the background checks.

Training sessions are from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, and on two Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with court observations during the last two weeks. For more information, call (859) 246-4313.

A case assignment could last an average of two years and the volunteer is expected to devote as little as 10 hours a month to the case and the children, Jamison said. Sometimes siblings are separated in different counties, but volunteers can ask to serve only Fayette County. "They are not forced into a case," she said. "We really work with people to find what suits their interests."

And, as always, there is no money, no stipend, no gas card, nothing, except maybe the possibility of fostering a healthier childhood for someone who needs it badly.

"This is Child Abuse Prevention Month," Jamison said. "Our challenge is to do something to make a difference. Our 'do something' is CASA."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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