It’s an overwhelming fact: There are more than 660,000 children in foster care in the United States.

Some are taken from abusive homes or removed due to drug-addicted parents or their incarceration.

As the program coordinator for Blount County’s CASA office, Janie Wallace believes the place to start to make a difference is right here where we live. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, an organization that advocates on behalf of children in the juvenile court system because of abuse and neglect.

The Blount County office is part of CASA of the Tennessee Heartland, covering Blount, Scott and Anderson counties. Each has its own program coordinator.

Work is done by volunteers who are trained to represent the best interests of children in court. Wallace has been program coordinator for Blount County since January and said CASA has had a presence in this community for at least five years. She is appealing to those who have time, to join in. A total of 30 hours of training is required, with 15 of them online. Then trainees attend five three-hour classroom sessions. Participants must be at least 21.

On Wednesday, May 22, Wallace will host an informational meeting for anybody interested in volunteering. It will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the United Way office, 1615 E. Broadway Ave., Maryville. Potential volunteers are welcome to drop in at their convenience and learn more. Light refreshments will be served.

Seeing a case to the end

Once a person has gone through the required training, he or she will be assigned a case, Wallace explained. The CASA volunteer then stays with the case until a resolution is reached; either the child or children are reunited with their biological family or are placed in adoptive homes.

That includes interviewing the child, making court appearances, checking in with school officials and making sure a child is receiving the services he or she needs. Sometimes that might mean visiting their physicians. A report then is written and given to the judge with a recommendation on outcome. The volunteer does not investigate abuse.

Wallace said she has retired individuals who volunteer as well as volunteers who hold full-time jobs.

The average commitment is 12-15 hours per month, the program coordinator said. Some who have more time to give do so.

There are good outcomes, and having a CASA volunteer improves the odds. With a CASA volunteer, a child is half as likely to languish in the foster care and child welfare system, according to information provided by CASA. Today, 60% of children in the system nationwide have no access to a CASA volunteer. That’s almost 400,000 children.

Wallace can point to success stories right here in Blount County. She said she received a card addressed to one of her volunteers, a thank-you from a father who worked to gain back custody of his daughter. He said CASA made a difference.

There is a definite need for volunteers to step up.

“I have six cases right now that I need to assign to volunteers,” Wallace said. “We need more volunteers. There are even more children in the system that aren’t getting referred.”

Just recently, the Blount County CASA office swore in new volunteers, including Wallace, who went through the training, too. She said training will be scheduled in the fall.

A successful fundraiser was held back in March.

In a community as large as Blount County, there are several organizations whose mainstay are volunteers. Wallace said CASA is a little different than most. This isn’t a one-and-done volunteer effort. It is a commitment as volunteers seek to help resolve bad situations and get children in safe and positive environments.

If someone wants to assist in other ways, Wallace said, she has a wish list of things like copy paper, printer ink, postage stamps, envelops and other office supplies.

Kathrynn Patton serves as community outreach coordinator for the Blount office of CASA. She has been hanging up flyers around town and getting the word out about what this organization is all about. Wallace said that’s the first step toward getting the help they so desperately need.

“We need to recruit volunteers and get our name out there,” Wallace said. “It’s all about getting children the help they need.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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