A Champion for the Kids: CASA volunteers are voice for children in court cases

By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Posted 10/23/19

CASA of Bradley and Polk Counties plays what local judges consider an important role in the lives of children involved in court cases. It is also in big need of the community’s help. CASA …

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A Champion for the Kids: CASA volunteers are voice for children in court cases

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CASA of Bradley and Polk Counties plays what local judges consider an important role in the lives of children involved in court cases. It is also in big need of the community’s help. 

CASA stands for “Court-Appointed Special Advocates,” and it is a nonprofit organization which recruits and trains volunteers to help children who may not otherwise have anyone to speak for them in court. 

“It is a community of volunteers whose primary focus is to be a voice for children in court cases involving children,” said Christopher Janetzko, executive director of CASA of Bradley and Polk Counties. “These cases can often include things like abuse, neglect and drug use in the home.” 

Each volunteer goes through 30 hours worth of training before they ever receive a case. During these training sessions, they learn about the kinds of things children may face in their home — including signs of abuse, neglect and drug use.

Volunteer advocates who have completed their training are then sworn in by a local judge and assigned children involved in court cases. 

Natalie Barrionuevo, advocate manager for the local CASA chapter, explained the organization provides a service to local judges who want to learn more about a child’s home life. 

“Advocates will meet the children and their families during a home visit and can also meet with the child separately … usually at their school,” Barrionuevo said. “We then write up a report that we give to the judge.” 

These reports describe the advocates’ impressions of the children’s home lives. Advocates are also tasked with making recommendations to help the child and his or her family. 

Recommendations touch on whether or not the child should stay in the home, whether or not the parents need drug tests, whether or not a school-aged child is in school, whether the child needs counseling and a number of other concerns. 

“We like to say we’re the eyes and ears of the judge,” Janetzko said. 

CASA reports give judges a look at the child’s home life they might not normally get from just reports from agencies like the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. 

Barrionuevo said it is more likely hidden home problems like abuse will be uncovered if there are additional home visits like the ones CASA provides. She added that not every case involving child custody involves DCS, so CASA provides a “missing link” to connect judges with information on the children’s home lives. 

CASA advocates also make sure to talk to the children alone outside the home, so they can learn more about their home lives with less adult interference. These meetings typically take place at a child’s school. 

Because of the court order, advocates are also legally allowed to talk to others involved in the child’s life, such as school teachers, counselors and doctors. That way, their reports and recommendations are based on more than just their personal opinions. 

“There’s a statistic nationally that, 90% of the time, judges will implement the recommendations of the advocate,” Janetzko said. “I think that may be even higher locally.” 

CASA of Bradley and Polk Counties typically serves between 200 and 250 children a year. However, including advocates in training now, there are only 19 advocates between the two counties. 

Janetzko noted some people may not want to see and report on signs of abuse and other problems children can face at home. However, he pointed out CASA’s work can help end the abuse. 

“It is a tangible way for people in our community who are frustrated with the stories they hear to do something,” Janetzko said. 

Barrionuevo also said CASA advocates help ensure the concerns of children who cannot speak for themselves in court are heard, which ensures they don’t “get lost in the system.” 

To become an advocate, one must be 21 years old and able to pass a background check. 

Barrionuevo estimates an advocate will spend about 12 hours per month on a case. An advocate’s schedule after training typically includes monthly court dates, home visits and individual meetings with the child. 

For more information on the local CASA chapter or to become a volunteer, visit www.casabp.org or call 423-472-5800. 

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