Last summer, when Ben Haydon decided to become a volunteer court-appointed special advocate in Fayette County’s family court, he figured he had a pretty good idea what he was getting into.
After all, his mother had been a social worker for 30 years, a friend of his works in the CASA of Lexington office and he went through 30 hours of training to prepare.
What surprised him, Haydon said, “is what’s around us in Lexington and surrounding counties, some of the situations these kids are exposed to … We kind of live with our heads in the sand.”
Brittney Thomas began volunteering as a child advocate 2 1/2 years ago for a very specific reason: Her interest in the issue of human trafficking led to research that many children in foster care have been trafficked but nobody ever realizes it.
“It happens a lot. Definitely more than anyone would ever have thought,” Thomas said. “With more training, people realize that many of the cases had in the past were actually trafficking victims.”
Both of them, who have full-time jobs, said that volunteering as an advocate has been rewarding.
“If you want to help kids, it’s a great way to give back to your community,” Haydon said.
“Every child I’ve worked with, I can’t imagine what the outcome would be without an advocate,” Thomas said.
Unfortunately, that’s something far too many children in Fayette County’s Family Court face every year.
“Last year we served 347 kids but there were 1,481 who needed help,” said Melynda Jamison, executive director of CASA of Lexington. “We only served 23 percent of the need.”
But CASA is hoping to do more: Fayette County’s program has applied for a state grant to expand after the General Assembly earlier this year appropriated $3 million, the first state funding ever for a program that is in 41 counties, all privately funded until now. One main source of funding in Fayette County is the annual Superhero Run, which is next month; its theme: “Every child needs a hero, but abused children need superheroes.”
Jamison is recruiting for the next class of volunteers, which begins training Sept. 13. “We have capacity now for 14 new volunteers,” she said. “We would love our advocacy base to be representative of our community. We have a very diverse group of children that we serve. It’s fantastic to be able to give a male child a male role model, which they might never have had before. We can always use more men, more people of color, more speakers of multiple languages … Judges say they could use more advocates who are immigrants or from immigrant communities.”
If the county wins a grant to hire another manager, she hopes to add another 30 volunteers on top of that to help fill the gaping need in the family courts.
The children in the courts are either victims of abuse or neglect or have been taken from the home because the parents, through no fault of their own, cannot properly care for them. Sometimes these issues can be resolved and the child can return safely; other times, the best solution is to move toward severing parental rights and placing the child for adoption.
The court-appointed special advocate helps to make the recommendation on which direction the case will take and what steps are best for the child.
“The task of the CASA is finding a safe, permanent home for the child,” Jamison said. “The CASA acts as the eyes and ears for the judge.”
It’s a role that is vital, said Fayette County Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton. She said they assign an advocate to the children they think need them the most.
“These are the most heart-wrenching cases,” Masterton said. The cases are often complex, involving a variety of factors such as drugs and alcohol, poverty, unemployment, mental illness and domestic violence.
“While we have lawyers representing the parents and a guardian ad litem for the children, they don’t have time to spend hours and hours talking to people and getting a sense of what is really going on,” Masterton said. But the advocate, who will have only one or two cases at time, can. “They focus on one family, one set of children, and give the court tremendous amount of insight that there’s no other way we could get. The help us make good decisions.”
The advocate must commit to staying with a case for at least two years, which is the average length of time it takes to work through the court, and often during that time the advocate may be the only adult, other than the judge, permanently in the child’s life.
Having a source of stability can make a big difference: Jamison said that children who have an advocate spend an average of 7 1/2 months less in foster care than those without one.
Foster care can cost taxpayers up to $2,100 a month, she said. But the benefit to the child is incalculable.
Thomas, the Fayette County advocate, said children are often shuffled from one social worker to another, may have different attorneys assigned and may move from a foster home to residential care and back in the course of two years. In one of her cases, a teenager was able to start public school for the first time in eight years.
“She’s doing really well now, has a job,” Thomas said. “Things are starting to normalize for her, and she started to stabilize when a CASA got involved.”
For more information on how to become a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, call 859-246-4313 or go to Lexingtoncasa.com. The next training session begins Sept. 13 at 1155 Red Mile Place.
CASA of Lexington is funded through donations. Its main fundraiser, the Superhero Run, is Sept. 10 at the Kentucky Horse Park. You can register online at Lexsuperherorun.com.