Child abuse in NWA keeps going up, said director of development & marketing for the Court Appointed Child Advocate (CASA) program Julie Lolley. According to the Arkansas Commission on Child Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence, numbers rose from 3,670 cases of child abuse in Arkansas in 2011 to 4,528 in 2012 — that’s 19 percent more cases in just one year.
The causes, said Lolley, are not specifically defined by researchers, but many theories have arisen including social factors like the growing rate of poverty and increased awareness.
“Part of (the growth) may come from better reporting — becoming more of a proactive community. But also, we have a lot of meth, drug and alcohol abuse, and of course the downturn in the economy has impacted the number of cases,” Lolley explained.
Whatever the reason, CASA of Northwest Arkansas — a regional chapter of the a national organization — must keep up with the growth to carry out their mission of advocating for children brought into the court system. However, they’ve been unable to keep up. In the fiscal year ending June, 2013, CASA was asked to serve on more than 850 cases, and were only able to serve 450 children in Benton, Washington, Madison and Carroll counties, an increase of 10 percent over the previous year.
“At CASA we are on a sustained growth pattern of 10 percent a year. We’re trying to meet all the needs of children in our community by 2020. Unfortunately, cases are going up faster than we can grow,” Lolley said.
To make what they do possible, the CASA program depends on volunteer advocates that attend training and dedicate months, sometimes years — for just two days a month at minimum — to children stuck in legal battles dealing with abuse and neglect. The advocates work directly with the child to help communicate their needs, study the case in order to report their knowledge to the judge and in general advocate for the children’s welfare at all times.
“Department of Human Services (DHS) follows the case and tries to do the best they can but the children just don’t get that much attention. CASA volunteers are always the one consistent person in the child’s life,” Lolley said. “Sometimes they follow that case for 3, 4, 5 years and while the kids have different workers all the time, the CASA is usually the one consistent person in this child’s life.”
Children in the court system are found in varying environments that can be severely filthily, littered with feces, unkempt. Here, the children aren’t cared for, and can be victims of abusive relationships. This means the children often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and need basic items like glasses and help with reading and writing. These are things a CASA works to provide.
When children return to their homes the CASA’s job can continue, helping the parents complete parenting classes, drug and alcohol rehab, and basically whatever it takes, Lolley said.
Being a CASA does require some commitment in order to provide effective care, which include two visits a month minimum with their appointed child and writing court reports to the judge on their findings. Before becoming an official CASA, volunteers must attend a one-hour informational session, fill out an application, receive a background check, followed by 30 hours of training, 15 of which can be completed online. They are then sworn in by a judge and issued their first case.
On-staff advocates help to find a case that fits with each volunteer, taking into account the specializations discussed with the CASA.
“We have volunteers who want to specialize in teens. You can pick to help a baby or toddler. Usually we have enough cases a new volunteer can pick a case. Then our more seasoned volunteers help,” Lolley said.
They currently have 135 trained volunteers, and are in need of more ethnic and bi-lingual /Spanish speaking volunteers. Lolley said CASA believes every child deserves a dream for their future, and that’s what their advocates help provide.
“Every child deserves… Nurturance given through a smile and a hug, a loving home and a story of hope. The life gifts, the offerings, which each of you bestow on CASA’s children is that you help them write a new story that transforms their lives and futures.”
To find out more about volunteering, donating or signing up for the informational class to see if being a CASA is right for you, visit www.nwacasa.org