Friday, September 26, 2014

TOP STORY >> Benefit for CASA raises $32,000

Leader staff writer

The Lonoke County Court Appointed Special Advocates’ Home and Outdoors dinner and auction held Tuesday night at the Cabot National Guard Armory raised $32,000 to support services the organization provides to children.

The Lonoke County CASA office, 119 W. Front St., opened in 2000. The nonprofit works to provide abused and neglected children a voice in the court process.

A CASA worker is appointed to represent each abused or neglected child in Lonoke County. All are volunteers, with the exception of office administrators. Half of CASA’s funding comes from state and federal agencies.

“In a DHS case, when a child is removed from the home, a CASA volunteer is appointed to that child’s case,” CASA board member Ginger Stuart said.

“The volunteer follows that child from the beginning of the case to the end. That can run from several months to several years. What the court system tries to provide are services to the family that can reunite the children with their parents if possible. If not possible, the children may be available for adoption,” Stuart said.

“They are hard cases. These kids have been through so much,” she added.

CASA works to meet the needs of those children. Lonoke County has 1,000 child abuse complaints every year. Stuart said 200 of those children go into foster care.

CASA volunteer John Foster said, “When a kid goes into foster care, the court appoints a CASA worker. We gather information pertaining to that child. We visit them in the home. They are placed in foster homes all over the state because there are not enough foster homes.

CASA volunteer Shelley Tounzen said, “CASA is there to support the child and their best interests. There are attorneys for parents and the state, but someone needs to represent the child.”

She said there is a demand for advocate volunteers. Many CASA workers get a case as soon as they are sworn in.

“There is a big need nationwide for advocates,” Tounzen said.

Lonoke County CASA has 34 volunteers and needs more. The 36-hour training lasts one week.

“It’s my way to help a child in need and give them a voice. When you get your heart into it, you are more determined to do everything possible for the child’s best interest,” CASA volunteer Karla Pipkin pointed out.

“Anybody can be a CASA volunteer, if you have the time. If not, support it the best way you can with events like this,” she said.

Foster was a mechanic for 40 years. He was retired when he heard about the organization and said they made it easy by providing the training.

Foster had his first case a month after being sworn in. He said CASA volunteers do not need a special degree or to have a background in social work to be an advocate.

Lonoke County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Elmore said, “CASA is my eyes (and) ears (so) I know what is going on in a child’s life. They give me reports. They talk with the grandparents, foster parents, the children. They give me an all-around view and picture of that child’s life.

“Without that picture, I can’t make the proper decisions I make that affect that child’s life. With (CASA volunteers) I feel like I have. Without them, I would have a terrible time.

“CASA workers are dedicated. We have some that have been (CASA workers) for more than 12 years working on these cases,” Elmore said.

“They are not ready to give up on these cases, and I am not either,” Elmore said.

Elmore added that Lonoke County has amazing groups working together for children involved in court cases.