CASA | A voice for the children

Features / November 15, 2016

Statistics show that every year in the United States more than 3.6 million referrals are made to child protection agencies involving more than 6.6 million children, and around 3.2 million of those children are subject to an investigated report.

In 2014, state agencies found an estimated 702,000 victims of child maltreatment and identified an estimated 1,580 children who died as a result of abuse and neglect — between four and five children a day.

In 2007, the Arkansas Department of Human Services investigated 26,817 reports of child abuse and neglect in Arkansas. Sixty-six of the substantiated cases were neglect. Twenty-three of the substantiated cases were physical abuse. Twenty-eight of the substantiated cases were sexual abuse. There were 7,194 children placed in foster care as a result of these reports.

According to the Garland County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, website, Garland County ranks among the worst in Arkansas in per capita rates of child abuse and neglect. Statistics show that in 2007 there were 319 victims of child maltreatment in Garland County. Garland County CASA is a nonprofit organization that recruits, trains and supports volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children. These trained court-appointed volunteers represent the best interest of an abused or neglected child for whom placement is being determined by the juvenile court and provide the judge with valuable information on the child to help the court make a sound decision about the child’s future.

“So many of our volunteers, staff, and board members are powerful women like these three advocates, and many of the religious organizations that support us through the year are women’s groups, too,” said Garland County CASA Executive Director Justin Buck.

“I’m so inspired and humbled by the incredible work of women leading the village it takes to care for our children. Of course, we could use all the help we can get, and anyone is welcome to give us a call to find out how to get involved.”

WHAT EXACTLY DO CASA VOLUNTEERS DO?

• Search for information, review records and talk to parents, relatives, teachers, health care workers and the child.

• Identify needed services, available resources and placement options.

• Monitor the court ordered services to see that they are carried out in a timely manner.

• Appear in court at each hearing with a report outlining concerns and recommendations to help the judge make decisions in the child’s best interests.

Garland County CASA volunteers are working behind the scenes every day to try to turn things around and lower these numbers. Among these advocates are Janna Pfautz, Bettye Jo Thrash and Jane Luschen.

Jane Luschen has volunteered with Garland County CASA for eight years now, and has had approximately 25 different cases involving 53 children.

“The one thing about CASA is that we are, sometimes, the one constant in the children’s lives and the parents’ lives. We are somebody that they can go to, and we’re understanding, and we try not to be judgmental — we just

Jane Luschen

Jane Luschen

want these children to be able to return to a safe, loving home, and that’s mainly what CASAs do,” Luschen said.

“It does require a commitment and willingness to make time for the kids, but it’s so worthwhile when you see these children. It’s so hard; I mean, they feel like they’ve been abandoned when they’re placed in foster care and they just need to have somebody that’s a constant in their life. We work to get these parents and children reunited.”

While a positive resolution where the child is reunited with the parents is what they hope for, Luschen said it doesn’t always turn out that way. Children of all ages are seen by the volunteer advocates, from newborn babies to teenagers, and in some cases the children are assigned to an advocate before they’ve even been born.

Janna Pfautz was appointed as a volunteer advocate in February 2013 and said that although Garland County has some great DHS workers, the system is severely “broken” and “inadequate.”

Janna Pfautz

Janna Pfautz

“Somebody asked me one day about how hard it was to work with these kids that are juvenile delinquents — these kids are not juvenile delinquents. These kids have parents who have problems,” she said.

Pfautz said after she became involved with CASA and was assigned a few cases that she was surprised at just how much influence the volunteer advocates have on the future of the children they’re assigned.

“We can state our personal opinion to the judge and in court. We get to know the kids, we get to know their wants; we are advocates for these children. We are allowed and we are asked by the judge to express our opinions,” she said.

“The attorneys can’t do that; they can only address the law. We are a voice for the children. I’ve had some teenagers that were 15 or 16 years old that were able to go to court and voice their own opinion and we were able to help. Not necessarily to coach them, but to guide them in what the judge would be looking for and to have a little confidence when they get up on the stand to be able to speak their minds. Younger kids that are in grade school, or whatever, we become their voice.”

“Somebody asked me one day about how hard it was to work with these kids that are juvenile delinquents — these kids are not juvenile delinquents.”
— Janna Pfautz

The hardest part of the job for Pfautz is having to make the decision to terminate parents’ rights to their children, but, “when it’s necessary, you just know it,” she said. “Like I said, most of these kids are good kids, they’ve just got bad parents, and it’s sad.”

Bettye Jo Thrash has volunteered with CASA for 10 years, and says children have always been a big part of her life.

Bettye Jo Thrash

Bettye Jo Thrash

When asked what purpose CASA serves to our community, she said, “I would say that, of course, it serves the children, but it really serves the whole family. Often, not always, but sometimes, we are able to get families

back together again that are able to successfully move forward … that’s the most important thing to me, is to seek ways to reunite a family or, when they cannot be reunited for various reasons, to find a safe place for them to be.”

As a volunteer advocate, Thrash said her responsibilities to the child are to keep in touch with the child and ensure that all of the services that are due to him are being received. If there are foster parents involved, Thrash makes sure they are keeping up with the child’s medical and school requirements and just ensures the child is in a safe place.

Pfautz said her favorite aspect of the job is “seeing a positive resolution for the kids that gives them something better than what they’ve had, or at least getting them a solution so that they can get back to school and focus on growing up and becoming productive adults. I think the closing of the case — sometimes they’re hard, and they’re not exactly what we want, and sometimes we know that we will see that child back again, and that’s frustrating, but oftentimes it’s a good resolution. If we’ve all done our jobs right, it’s a good resolution and that feels great.”

Those interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer CASA advocate should call 501-321-9269.

Story by Lindsey Wells | Photography by Richard Rasmussen


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