Merlene Davis: More funding means more court volunteers needed to assist neglected abused kids

In December, there were 44 volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Lexington working with 88 abused or neglected children in the judicial system.

What that means is that those 88 children will have a chance of getting out of foster care 7½ months earlier than children who don't have a CASA advocate, and they have a chance of performing better in school, too, according to CASA executive director Melynda Milburn Jamison.

In fact, 90 percent of the children who have CASA volunteers watching out for them never re-enter the court system. Those are great numbers. Worthy of high praise.

But that euphoria is quickly tempered by reality. Those 88 children represent less than 10 percent of the minors in the system who really need a CASA volunteer.

So, all we have to do is get more volunteers, right?

Well, sort of.

For every 30 volunteers, there has to be a volunteer manager who can oversee the work and step in to help out if needed.

Volunteer managers need to get paid, and the budget of the non-profit stretched only so far. That's why CASA of Lexington had only two volunteer managers.

Recently, however, thanks to a grant from the national affiliate and donations from 500 people who participated in the CASA Superhero Run in September, CASA has hired a third volunteer manager, meaning more volunteers can be trained and prepared to be the voice of children who have no voice.

"For the first time in CASA (Lexington) history, we have three full-time volunteer managers," Jamison said. She sounded giddy.

Each manager is limited to 30 volunteers, she said, to ensure that the children receive enough support and have help assembling reports for the court.

Jamison said that in 2012, the last year for which data are available, 143 children in Fayette County had a CASA volunteer. "But that means 1,140 children were still left out," she said.

There could be more than one child per case, because CASA wants to keep siblings together.

So, yes, now all they need are more volunteers. And I am just positive enough to believe that we can donate enough money to help CASA hire a fourth volunteer manager as well.

Kentucky is one of eight states that provides zero funding for CASA. In Fayette County, the local government pays Jamison's salary and provides Internet service and office space for the program.

There are 20 programs in Kentucky, and most do not receive local support. Those 20 programs serve only 40 of the state's 120 counties. Most of Eastern Kentucky is not served at all.

But let's deal with the issue at hand. If you have time to visit with the children at least once a month and write a report when you go to court that includes information about family history and the backgrounds of the parents, then you might qualify to be an advocate. The report includes recommendations about what is best for the child, although the judge has the final say. Those recommendations, Jamison said, could be additional counseling, tutoring and any of a number of available resources.

You must be 21 and complete an application, undergo a background check, consent to 30 hours of training, and agree to stick with it for two years. You then will be sworn in by a judge and have a case assigned to you.

Jamison said most of the children are in foster care or group homes. Some aren't in Fayette County.

"Many of our volunteers work full-time jobs," she said. "They can find a time that works, maybe on weekends. You can work an 8 to 5 job and still be a CASA volunteer."

Most of the current volunteers are white women. Jamison would love to have more diversity to better match volunteers with children. About 53 percent of the children served in December were boys, she said. Forty-one percent of the children were white, and 24 percent were black. Most of the children were between 6 and 11 years old, with children 5 and younger coming in a close second.

Training will be 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays from Jan. 23 through Feb. 20.

There is no money, no stipend, no gas card, nothing. The only attraction is the prospect of making a child's life better.

"We focus on the needs of the child and how we can help as a staff," Jamison said. "The problem is real and Lexington is not immune. But if we work together, we can break the cycle of abuse."

If that's not too much of a sacrifice, CASA needs you.