Sunday, January 21, 2007

I wish I had a guardian ad litem while I was in foster care

Youth program proves perfect challenge
Schneider, Grace. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 15, 2007, pg. B3.

Gloria Wood was scanning the classified ads for a part-time job two years ago when she spotted a listing that jumped out:

"Program director — Assist in recruiting, screening and interviewing volunteers for a youth program. Provide training and supervision ... need strong organizational skills ... work a flexible schedule."

It all sounded right up Wood's alley.

"I love a challenge in putting things together," said Wood, 64, of Lanesville.

She's the part-time executive director of Harrison County's new Court Appointed Special Advocates program, known as CASA.

The volunteers she recruits and trains are matched with children of all ages who wind up — primarily through abuse and neglect — in the court system.

Volunteers are asked to gain children's trust and advocate for them while their case works its way to a resolution. Many last an average of two years.

Several times last week as Wood talked in her downtown Corydon office, she took phone calls from volunteers who are working to help children.

One, for instance, wanted to talk about a particularly "tense" situation facing the child that she was helping. Another called about an upcoming court date.

Wood is widely credited with getting the program off to a solid start after an initial effort shut down a decade ago. She also persuaded Harrison leaders to fund most of the $37,558 budget this year from casino tax revenues.

Under a recent state law, all cases involving children in need of services — referred to as CHINS in the court system — must receive assistance from a guardian ad litem, or a court-appointed special advocate. Harrison still appoints some guardians, usually lawyers enlisted at a reduced hourly fee.

But those costs add up, Harrison Circuit Judge H. Lloyd "Tad" Whitis said.

Whitis researched starting a CASA program before the state mandate, thinking it would help the court do a better job helping youngsters whose lives already are in turmoil.

"There was a need because no one really represented the needs of the children," Whitis recalled.

Because of the relatively large volume of cases — 57 in the p ast year or so — the judge hired referee Susan Umpleby, a Paoli lawyer, to handle the proceedings.

And nearly two years ago he hired Wood, who had taken early retirement a decade ago from the Veterans Administration. Wood took courses on CASA rules and has since begun recruiting and training Harrison's volunteers, 14 women and six men.

Among them are a restaurant cook, a day-care operator, an electrical engineer and a retired principal. Nineteen more people will start a new training course Feb. 3.

Wood matches volunteers with each of the current caseload of 38 children, from 9 months to 17 years old. The volunteers consult with caseworkers, meet weekly with the child and get acquainted with the family or foster caregivers.

Volunteers also attend court proceedings involving the child and eventually recommend a course of action to the court on what they think is best for the youngster.

The information is valuable, Whitis said, because "we've learned a lot more about the kids. We feel we're more informed before we make a decision."

Wood grew up on Smith Creek Road near Lanesville, where she now lives with her husband, Don. They have one grown son.

She's been active at St. John's Lutheran Church and in other volunteer activities. None of it quite prepared her for the world of abused and neglected children that she's seen through CASA.

"I thought Harrison County had no problems," she said. "I've lived a sheltered life."

She's pleased to get a chance to make a difference.

"We have helped so many children," Wood said, giving the credit to the volunteers.

"They are tremendous," she said. "I can't say enough about them."

The CASA program accepts applications continuously and new classes are held periodically to train volunteers. For information, call Gloria Wood at 738-3645, or write to 233 N. Capitol Ave., Room 202, Corydon, IN 47112.


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