The non-profit organization that represents neglected and abused children in Fayette County courtrooms is in danger of losing funds, which could result in the group cutting back its services.
"We're dancing as fast as we can, trying to keep up," said Debi King, director of Lexington Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA.
Volunteers with CASA are assigned to court cases in the Fayette County Family Court system in which children have been taken from their homes because they have been abused or neglected.
CASA's budget has decreased steadily over the past few years, King said. In fiscal year 2008, the budget was $139,305. The budget decreased to $99,749 the next year. The organization projects that its budget will be about $93,000 for fiscal year 2010, but "that's optimistic at this point," King said.
Donations are down to the Lexington chapter of CASA, which began in 1986, King said. The competition for grants is up. And the need for more advocates continues to grow.
King said CASA Lexington could lose one of its two coordinators.
And if that happens, CASA would have to reduce its volunteer force. By law, one coordinator can manage only 30 advocates, King said. There are 53 active advocates.
But there is a large need for CASA volunteers, King said. There are about 800 children in foster care or out-of-home care in Fayette County. CASA represents only 72 of them, King said.
Ideally, every child in the family court system would be assigned a CASA volunteer, King said. Advocates provide consistency to the children at the center of these cases. Key figures, such as social workers and attorneys, can change multiple times during the course of court proceedings. But an advocate stays with a child until a judge has placed them permanently in a home, which sometimes takes years, King said.
Anne Vandervort, a social worker who has been a member of the CASA board for two years, said social workers are overwhelmed with a large number of cases, and CASA volunteers help provide an extra set of eyes to a child's case.
"There are kids out there every day that need help," Vandervort said.
CASA volunteers are assigned to cases to give judges another perspective of what is happening in the children's lives. Advocates interview the children, parents, teachers, social workers and other figures in the child's life in order to make a recommendation on where a child should be placed. Advocates also conduct home visits, observe parent visitations and attend every court hearing of the case to which they are assigned.
In family court cases, separate attorneys are assigned to represent the interests of the children and parents, whereas a CASA volunteer looks at the overall picture of the case.
The judge uses the advocates' reports, along with those of attorneys and social workers, to determine whether a child should be returned to his or her home or placed in foster or adoptive care.
During a recent family court hearing, CASA volunteer Arthur Hayden presented his report on a complicated case during a hearing in front of Fayette Family Court Judge Jo Ann Wise. There were multiple children involved in the case, and Hayden had different recommendations for where the children should live.
The judge ultimately accepted the recommendations that Hayden made in the report.
"It sets out a pretty good plan," Wise said.
Wise said the volunteers provide a common-sense look at what is going on in a child's life that is vital to her decision making. For example, Wise said a CASA volunteer once pointed out to a mother that her child had never experienced Christmas before because the mother had a substance abuse problem. The mother later enrolled in a rehabilitation program because of the advocate's observation, Wise said.
"We need them," she said of the advocates. "I'll take all the help I can get."
A lot of work and free time is required of CASA volunteers. They must first complete 30 hours of training before they are assigned a case. Because most of the volunteers have full-time jobs, they have to take time off from work to attend court hearings and conduct interviews, King said.
"Our volunteers are some of the best volunteers in the world and they have to be," said Jane Bennington, the vice president of the CASA board of directors and chairwoman of the development committee. "It's no joke, and they know that when they sign up."
Advocate Anthony Wilder, who has been with CASA for about a year, is in the Marine Corps Reserve and is a full-time student at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Wilder said he joined CASA because he wanted a different volunteer experience that would have a direct impact on the community.
Wilder said the work can sometimes be rough, but he receives gratification from the children with whom he works.
"They know someone's there to help them," Wilder said. "They're not just going to be thrown into the system and forgotten about."