Every year, thousands of children in the United States fall victim to abuse or neglect.
In 2015 alone, that number was estimated to be roughly 683,000, according to a report published earlier this year by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Sadly, the Volunteer State is not exempt from this statistic. Nearly 11,400 children were found to be neglected or abused in Tennessee in 2015, a number that rose almost 23 percent in four years.
While the statistics are staggering, one organization in East Tennessee is ensuring that those children are being given a voice. Enter Court Appointed Special Advocates of East Tennessee.
A National Voice
Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA as many know it, was created to address this growing struggle. The National CASA Association traces its roots back to the late 1970s in Washington state where a juvenile court judge thought that volunteers could be the voice for abused and neglected children inside court walls. Today, the association includes a network of 1,000 local and regional chapters in 49 states.
Not ten years after the national organization was created, local Judge Carey Garrett established CASA of East Tennessee, believing that the organization could aid the juvenile court system in gathering information critical to the safety of the children within it.
“We have a very specific niche of what we’re working on,” says Britney Sink, current Executive Director of CASA of East Tennessee. “We’re always trying to push hard for increased community awareness. We’re here to serve the children.”
Becoming an Advocate
At the heart of CASA of East Tennessee is a network of 52 dedicated volunteers, the key word being dedicated. Preparation to become a child advocate involves more than 30 hours of training, but not before an extensive application process, interview, and background check. Additionally, Potential volunteers are required to provide four references with their application. “We understand it’s a process,” Sink says, “but we have to be careful about what we’re doing.”
Above all, the interview becomes the most telling part of the application process, as potential volunteers discuss their motivations for wanting to participate. Staff take this opportunity to go in-depth on what it really means to be an advocate.
“The person has to be committed,” Sink says. “It does take a good deal of time and effort to do this. It’s not something where you come once a week or once a month and help and then you’re done. But it’s clear for people, once they become a volunteer, that they are making a tremendous impact on these kids.”
Just ask Marcia Bailey.
Bailey has been a CASA volunteer for the last three-and-a-half years. As a mother of three, former instructor for the Bradley Method of childbirth, and someone who spent time working in law enforcement, the safety and stability of youth are critically important to her.
“I was fortunate to be in a very stable, functional family growing up,” she says, “but I’ve had periods of times in my life where I’ve gotten glimpses of dysfunction and trouble and other issues that affect families, in particular children.”
After being introduced to the organization by an out-of-state friend and taking time to make sure the moment was right to begin such a commitment, Bailey applied, relishing the opportunity to make a difference.
Once she completed her training, she, like all other advocates, was sworn in by Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin as an officer of the court.
“We swear them in to give them authority to investigate,” Irwin says. “It also ties in to confidentiality standards. We want our kids up here to have a good level of confidentiality where their records and behaviors are protected from outside scrutiny. By law, it’s not the public’s business.”
He sees CASA’s work as a “vital tool” to the juvenile court system: “It is absolutely one of the most potent weapons that we have to make lives better for children in Knox County.” And it’s that attitude that makes Bailey feel her work is making the difference she hopes for.
“Judge Irwin and his magistrates take our work seriously,” she says. “They count on us.”
Called to Serve
When Irwin hears a case where he perceives he may not be getting all of the details, he will call upon CASA. Allegations may have been made of abandonment, abuse, or neglect. A child may have been removed from the home already by Child Protective Services because they’ve been determined to be at risk of harm. There may be a case where a parent leaves and takes the kids, but the other parent wants them back. A grandparent may be petitioning to have a child taken from an unfit home and become their guardian. Or parents may be asking to get their child out of foster care and back home.
“Some of them are straightforward,” Sink says, “but there are cases where something doesn’t quite add up or there’s some sort of complication where they need someone to check up on it.”
One of two CASA staff based at juvenile court are delivered an appointment letter, to which they look into their pool of volunteers to lock in an advocate. Once a volunteer is appointed, they work diligently to figure out what’s going on in that child’s life.
The variables are endless when it comes to the cases CASAs are involved in. Sometimes there is an entire team of professionals involved in the case, and other times CASAs are the only people appointed. They may be assigned to one child or to a sibling group.
When appointed to a case, advocates learn everything they can about the children involved. They meet monthly in a safe space to ensure that the children are doing alright. The location of this safe space is unique to each case, but all are locations where the children do not feel pressure to talk a certain way because of someone who might be in the room, Sink says. For many children, that safe space is at school, at lunch in the cafeteria or in an after-school program.
Meeting inside a home is often vital to get a clear picture, though, especially if a CASA is working on a case where someone is petitioning to be a custodian for a child. Volunteers are allowed to go into a home to determine whether it is the safest possible environment for the child.
But the work is more than just meetings.
“It’s a big important part,” Bailey says, “but it may involve going to schools and gathering info, checking in with other agencies, interviewing family members not living in the home.”
Advocates speak with and gather records from parents, grandparents, custodians, teachers, and therapists. They even look up school records to get a snapshot of the child’s performance in academics. This is why Sink calls CASAs the “fact finders of the court.”
All of this work seems to have an impact on those watching from the courtroom, people like Alison Starnes-Anglea, a contract staff attorney for the State of Tennessee Department of Human Services. Starnes-Angles has spent a lot of time in juvenile court watching CASAs work. She was stirred by their preparedness, awareness, and “true understanding of the needs of the children.”
“The volunteers are always ready. They know everything a person in their role should know,” she says. “It’s a stressful place, but they are always very professional and prepared and you can just feel how engaged they are with the child, the family and other providers.”
Starnes-Anglea was so moved by their work that she joined the organization’s Board of Directors four years ago. Today, she serves as the board’s president.
The Final Report
CASAs can work for weeks, even months, on one single case. They typically do one at a time. Bailey, who was named Volunteer of the Year this year by CASA, now takes on two cases at a time. She has had cases last roughly a year-and-a-half from start to finish and others that last only a couple of weeks.
Everything an advocate finds during that time is put into a comprehensive report for the court, which includes recommendations for next steps.
“It’s a compilation of documentation about the life of the child, including how the child is doing in school, how the child is medically, and psychological records for the child or parents,” Irwin says. “It includes a look inside the cupboards to make sure there is enough food. Is the home clean? What activities is the child involved in? What are their stressors? The report sort of gives us a head start when we come to court.”
None of the information found by an advocate is shared among parties prior to the court hearing. During that time, everyone involved in the case receives the report and the advocate attends the hearing in case the judge has any questions.
“We’re not there to judge anybody,” Sink says.
Every case is different, but recommendations could be made for the child to continue going to therapy, for a mom to attend a parenting class, or for someone close to the child to attend an anger management class or seek alcohol or drug treatment.
“They weigh that report really heavily,” Bailey says. “We do have an opportunity to make a difference with all the other agencies, to work together and make better situations and, hopefully, break the cycle of abuse.”
A Backbone of Support
An organization is only as strong as its foundation and many involved with CASA rave about its staff and the work they do to support these advocates. For Bailey, her gratitude comes from the support staff provided to volunteers, whether helping them with a report or accompanying them on a home visit. For Irwin, his appreciation is for the fact that the support staff provides a solid foundation so the work can continue.
“They are a small staff with a small budget, but this staff is empowered by the work of these good people who come in, are not compensated, and take on the struggles of these children,” he says.
CASA of East Tennessee runs on an annual $160,000 budget. Funding comes from grants, county funding as a defined services provider, United Way, the state, and the Tennessee Commission on Youth. Two fundraisers a year –the Red Shoe Gala in February and one small event in the summer—round out its financial needs, but the organization is constantly looking to expand its donor pool to keep this important work going and growing.
“CASA couldn’t be described with any other word than ‘vital’ for the children of Knox County” Starnes-Anglea says. “There’s no other role like it.”
Rebecca Whalen lives and works in New York, where she enjoys life as a new mom and practices yoga as her exercise of choice for both body and mind.