Volunteers speak up for abused and neglected children

Through no fault of their own many abused and neglected Mohave County children are caught in the complexities of a court system that leaves them feeling alone and abandoned.

Ten years ago Kingman resident Carol Daley felt the need to speak for these children who have been taken from their parents and placed in foster homes.

She offered her services as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) making sure their needs are considered and their calls for help are heard.

"I was one of the first CASAs in Kingman," Daley said.

"Since I retired I put my whole mind, soul and body into the program.

The courts are in our favor now."

Daley said she has seen a definite change in her role during the last several years.

"When I first started as an advocate the judges barely read my reports.

Now the judge listens to my recommendations because he knows a CASA is the closest to the child.

We observe things and see things others don't see."

Concerned with the staggering number of children in foster care, Congress enacted the "Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974.

The law provided financial assistance to states for the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

One requirement for assistance is the appointment of a guardian to represent a child's best interest in every case which results in a judicial proceeding.

Currently the Arizona CASA Program is operated l in all 15 counties by Arizona's Juvenile Courts.

More than 2,500 CASA volunteers help 7,600 children from newborn infants to 18-year-olds who have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused, or have been abandoned or neglected.

In the past, Daley said, she felt helpless and frustrated with the complexities of the foster care system.

"About five years ago I was helping a boy who had been in 14 foster homes, but then I 'lost him,' she said.

"It took me nine months to find him.

He ended up in a special home in Phoenix."

Those kinds of situations aren't as likely to happen these days, according to Ro Hollingsworth, who said that judges and child advocates are trying to limit the time that children are placed in foster care.

"In the past kids could be in the foster care system for four or five years.

They grew up in the system.

It was a bad thing," said Hollingsworth, the supervisor of the Mohave County CASA program.

"But things are improving for these kids.

Now, within about 18 months a decision is made."

However, the decision of whether children can return to parents who once neglected, abused or abandoned them is a tough one.

"Some people think parenting skills come naturally.

That's not true.

Some people, when they were growing up, did not have good role models," she said.

"We give them (parents) opportunities to shape up and learn appropriate parenting skills."

Hollingsworth said services provided to these parents (to improve their parenting skills) are "incredible," but it is up to parents to demonstrate to the court that they have learned something.

CASA volunteers provide consistency and continuity in these children's lives during a time of stressful turmoil by spending time with them.

While the parents are trying to get their act together, advocates meet with the child away from the parents' home, or the foster care home, in effort to get to know the child.

"It is good to do activities with the children, such as taking them to lunch, or grocery shopping, so that they become comfortable enough to talk to you about what is going on in their lives," Daley said.

She recently intervened when two teen-age sisters taken from a home and placed in different foster care homes were told they could not speak to each other.

"I knew that couldn't be right," Daley said.

"They have already gone through so much.

I checked into it and found out they could talk to each other.

They were happy when I told them."

A special education teaching assistant for 13 years, Daley said she is currently an advocate for three children, although most advocates can only handle one case at a time when they first start the program.

She sometimes meets with the Foster Care Review Board when children have been placed out of the home, offering input about what is going on with the child and what needs to be done in the way of educational or medical care.

The CASA volunteer researches the case by interviewing teachers, counselors, foster parents, birth parents and social workers.

She also contacts therapists, attorneys and teachers monthly and writes a report, which is sent to the judge when there is a hearing.

She then appears in court to speak for the child.

"It is time consuming, but child abuse needs to be stopped, and someone needs to speak for these children," she said.

"When these kids give you a big hug, and you know you have made a difference in their life, it is all worth it."

Currently, there are 139 open cases with more than 200 children who need an advocate in Mohave County, and only eight volunteers in Kingman, said Kingman CASA coordinator Barbara Ferguson.

"There is a tremendous need," she said.

"We especially need men who will be good male role models.

There are so many men and women in this town who would be good advocates."

Prospective CASA volunteers must be interviewed and finger printed and take a polygraph test.

Once accepted, volunteers attend a training program for Court Appointed Special Advocates in Phoenix where they are trained in courtroom procedure, the child protection system, the juvenile justice system and the special needs of children who have been abused and neglected.

Trainees are reimbursed for food and expenses.

Anyone interested in becoming a CASA volunteer or needing more information about the program can call Ferguson at 753-0795, Ext.

4412.