MADISON COUNTY — Lifelong Pendleton resident Jo Scott said many years ago she had heard about a program that helps give a voice in the courtroom to children who have been removed from their homes through no fault of their own.
“When I retire, that’s something I want to go into,” she recalled thinking.
She followed through with that in the fall of 2017, receiving training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Since early 2018, she has represented seven children, doing what she can to represent them and their wishes in cases that often involve foster care and adoption.
“It’s not that it’s rewarding, it’s that it’s necessary, it’s an important thing for the child.”
East Central Indiana Court Appointed Special Advocates, a non-profit organization serving abused and neglected children in Madison County, is seeking volunteers like Scott to help such children navigate the legal system in pursuit of a safe, permanent home.
“Madison County has a major shortage of CASA volunteers and one of the highest rates of abuse and neglect in the State of Indiana,” according to Madison Circuit Court Judge Steve Koester, in a press release from the non-profit. “Every abused and neglected child deserves an advocate in these complicated cases. The CASA volunteers are the voices of these vulnerable children.”
More than 400 abused and neglected children in the county are waiting for an advocate, according to the release, and East Central Indiana CASA’s goal is to recruit at least 100 child advocate volunteers in the next year to meet this need. There were 1,189 Child in Need of Services (CHIN) cases that needed advocates in 2020.
Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA, said in the release that Madison County is among the state’s highest for substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect, and has the second-longest list of children waiting for a CASA.
A CASA child advocate serves as a guide and voice for children removed from home while the courts determine where the child should live — either with parents, relatives, foster home or group home, the release states.
The advocate gets to know the child, gathers information about the case, and provides a recommendation to the judge regarding what they believe is best for the child.
“Being in a courtroom and interviewed by grownups they don’t know can be overwhelming and frightening for a child,” Craycraft said. “A CASA volunteer gets to know the child, helps them know what to expect, and goes with them to court. They always know they have someone they can depend on when they have a CASA.”
“We value the role of the CASA and carefully consider their recommendations,” Koester said.
Scott said she found this to be true. She said judges are “very respectful” of her and other CASAs, and that by getting to know the children she works with, she has been able to represent the child to the judge.
“They (judges) rely on us to fill in the blanks,” Scott said.
And ultimately, that can make a difference.
“Even if things don’t go exactly the way I wish they had, I can help make sure they go a way that is in the best interest of the child.”
Anyone 21 or older may apply to be a CASA child advocate volunteer. After an interview and successful background check, prospective volunteers complete 32 hours of training and are then sworn in by a Superior Court judge.
“Once training is complete, most CASA volunteers spend less than 10 hours a month as an advocate. They meet with the child at least once a month and stay current on progress with the case,” Craycraft said.
Madison County child advocate volunteers receive support from paid staff at the East Central Indiana CASA office.
Monthly informational sessions are scheduled to answer questions and provide an opportunity for interested individuals to talk with the staff and current volunteers.
Scott said of all the ways to give back that exist, CASA caught her attention because of dire need for volunteers.
“I have always had this deep realization that all children are at the mercy of their grownups,” Scott said. As a CASA, she gets to help improve the life of someone suffering because of that reality. “These are the children that need someone to speak for them.
“The child has no representation in the courtroom unless they have a CASA.”
To apply to be a CASA or register for a free information session, go to eastcentralCASA.org, call 765-649-7215 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.