Friday, December 22, 2006

67,000 reports of child abuse, 31,000 investigated, 1000 vindicated.

CASA volunteers give kids a voice in court
Muhammad, Larry. Louisville Courier-Journal, May 15, 2006, pg. E1.

Bernice Jones was retired and looking for volunteer work when she found her niche: helping abused and neglected children with cases in family court.

"I wanted to stay involved with children, and this gives me a sense of well-being," said Jones, a former teacher and librarian for Jefferson County Public Schools.

Diane Smith , a former foster parent and Louisville homemaker whose fourth child is adopted, also works with kids whose family dysfunction winds up in court and says, "We're really lucky to have a good, stable family life, we're really blessed. But gosh, there are so many kids out there who need a family, permanent or not, and I wanted to do something."

Smith and Jones are volunteers for CASA Court Appointed Special Advocates a nonprofit organization now helping more than 400 dependent children in the Louisville area involved in family court.

CASA volunteers function on the children's behalf, following through to ensure that the court's recommendations are carried out and establishing a supportive relationship with the family.

"My whole purpose is to be the children's voice," Smith said.

And the group has launched a yearlong program to train 60 new volunteers to serve 75 to 100 more abused and neglected children in Jefferson County.

One new recruit is Rob Pinson , a lawyer for Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs , who said, "What do I get out of it? Satisfaction that perhaps some justice was served. A better perspective on life and how good I had it and still have it. Being able to experience and understand someone else's life really makes me understand mine and what I should do with it."

The Jefferson County group, started in 1985, is one of 900 CASA organizations across America operating in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

More than 73,000 people volunteer, and they help an estimated 25 percent of America's abused and neglected children in dependency proceedings about 288,000 children, according to recent statistics.

CASA groups work closely with the judicial system, which asks their assistance on selected cases, and volunteers protect the child's interests in pending court.

Jones, who worked with a family that had two daughters, 13 and 15, said, "I would talk to them, we'd do things like go to the movies, basically once every two weeks first once a week and as the situation seemed stable I would go every two weeks. They were with their mother on a temporary basis the first time I met them, because the mother had lost custody previously, and my role was to make sure everything was going well and provide any help they need to stay together as a family."

Smith once worked with sisters ages 4 and 6 who had been in eight foster homes and were up for adoption.

She said, "Children love unconditionally, and I have worked with abused kids who don't care if their parents beat them, didn't feed them they want to go home. "

The Jefferson County campaign to recruit and train more CASA volunteers is underwritten with a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Louisville , which manages more than 1,000 charitable funds that support a wide range of cultural, educational and humanitarian programs.

As a volunteer, Pinson said, he underwent about 40 hours of training on issues like domestic violence and behavioral disorders, learned of social services available for distressed families, and observed family court proceedings.

Two weeks ago he got his first case, and said, "Children are pretty much helpless in this world, and social workers, judges and guardians can change during the course of these proceedings. So CASA volunteers provide that consistency these children need to handle the situations they are in.

"We are another shoulder for them to rest their heads on and another ear for them to talk to."

Reporter Larry Muhammad can be reached at (502) 582-7091.

Keep children out of harm's way
If you believe a child is being abused, neglected or exploited, call the abuse reporting hotline of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

"It's the law, it's easy and it's confidential," according to Lisa Durbin , manager of the department's Child Safety Branch .

"One of the most important things people can do to keep kids safe is to report abuse when they suspect it," she said in a statement.

The state's 24-hour, toll-free number is (800) 752-6200 .

Last year, Health and Family Services received more than 67,000 reports of child abuse, 31,000 of which were investigated and nearly 10,000 were substantiated.

Callers can also call local police at 911 and supply them with basic information, including the endangered child's name, approximate age and address, parents' names, specific explanation of why you believe the child is being abused and by whom, names and contact information of others who can corroborate your suspicions.

"The protection of children is everyone's business," Durbin said in the statement. "We cannot do it alone. It truly takes a village to raise a child."

Kids safer when parents are alert
Childhelp, a national, nonprofit child-abuse prevention group, offers these tips for parents on avoiding child abuse:

--Never discipline your child when you are uncontrollably angry.
--Participate in your child's activities and get to know his or her friends.
--Never leave your child unattended, especially in a car.
--Teach your child the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching.
--When your child tells you he or she doesn't want to be with someone, this could be a red flag.
--Be aware of attitude and behavior changes in your child and inquire about them.
--Teach your children what to do if they are separated from you while away from home.
--Teach children correct names for private body parts.
--Be alert to conversations that reveal premature sexual understanding.
--Pay attention when someone shows greater than normal interest in your child.
--Make certain that your children's day-care center or school will release them only to you or someone you designate.

To learn more
Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services: , or call (800) 372-2973.

Childhelp, a national nonprofit group devoted to the prevention, treatment and research of child abuse and neglect: . The group also has a 24-hour national child -abuse hotline: (800) 422-4453 .

Community Foundation of Louisville: , or call (502) 585-4649 .


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