CASA volunteers needed for abused/neglected children in Blount
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A nonprofit that for decades has helped East Tennessee children who have been neglected or abused is restructuring, and volunteers in Blount County are urgently needed.
Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, just recently divided off into different branches. Knox County will be an entity until itself, while Blount County has been paired with Anderson and Scott counties to become CASA of the Tennessee Heartland. Sevier County’s CASA will be a solo venture like Knox County. Jefferson and Hamblen have combined for that area. This nationwide organization provides volunteers who become advocates for children who end up in the juvenile court system due to abuse and/or neglect.
Naomi Asher is executive director for CASA of the Tennessee Heartland. She said right now, there are probably five or fewer CASA volunteers here.
“We could easily use 30-plus in the court system in Blount County,” Asher said. And while CASA has that number — 30 in Anderson County — it really needs that many more.
The service areas became too large for the staff on board, Asher said. It was a case of being overcommitted. The separation means each can concentrate on what is right in front of them.
Holly Higgins, like Asher, wants to see those volunteer numbers increase. She is part of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, which supplies nonprofits all across the country with volunteers. Higgins is taking her background in sales and marketing and using it to bring awareness to CASA in hopes there are people out there who can come on board and also make a difference.
Americorp Vista is a national service program designed to fight poverty. It was founded in 1964 as Volunteers in Service to America but was incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993. VISTA was initially created as the domestic version of the Peace Corps. VISTA members make a year-long commitment to a nonprofit or local government agency to help strengthen a community.
Asher said some have the wrong impressions of what it takes to become a CASA volunteer.
Those interested do not have to have a legal background or one in social services. Asher explained. Volunteers must be at least 21, go through 30 hours of training, a background check and be available to attend court hearings. She said all of that requires about 15 hours per month.
“It’s really everyday citizens that we need,” the executive director said. “That courtroom experience or social work background isn’t needed. There is some flexibility required because of the court dates, however.”
It’s people who know what it’s like to be a sister or mother or cousins that CASA is looking for, Asher explained. “People that have a heart for kids and want to stand up for them when lots of times there is nobody else doing that.”
Judges appoint the advocates to watch over the children in the court system to make sure they don’t get lost in that overburdened court system. Volunteers stay with each case until they are resolved and the child is placed into a safe, permanent home. Since CASA’s national inception, CASA volunteers have helped more than 2 million children find those safe and permanent homes.
Volunteers are able to help judges by getting to know the child and talking with the adults in that child’s life — from foster parents to teachers, physicians, attorneys, social workers and others. The CASA volunteer makes recommendations on placement of the child after that investigation. Volunteers, however, are not involved in the actual investigation of the abuse.
CASA of East Tennessee was established in 1987 in Knox County. The first CASA program was started in Washington back in 1977.
Places to serve
Higgins has enjoyed her time as a Americorp VISTA volunteer over the last few months. She could sign on for more time with CASA or move into another Americorp assignment. She wants people to know there are lots of places to serve within CASA.
“People who want to volunteer with CASA don’t necessarily have to become advocates in court,” she said. CASA could use a number of talents, from helping with the newsletters to fundraising to awareness and more, she explained.
Asher said she believes this restructuring will be a great opportunity for CASA. Where before six counties were being administered to under one umbrella, they are now separated out with more time devoted to each.
Blount County’s program is in the process of being reignited. Asher said she has a part-time person in place and space at the courthouse to use. As the program expands, so will CASA’s ability to help more children in this community.
“We have a really small budget,” Asher said. “Having volunteers means we are able to do so much more. When volunteers are in the courtroom with these children, it makes such a huge difference. It is very difficult for a judge to make recommendations regarding placement because everybody is speaking for someone but nobody is solely interested in the well-being of the child like an advocate.”
Higgins is issuing a call to action for this community. “CASA needs all pieces of the puzzle to grow,” she said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to join in and help, to pick up the phone and call someone.”