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Guest column: CASA has helped abused, neglected children for 21 years
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For 21 years in the Northeastern Judicial Juvenile Court, everyday people have taken an extraordinary road to ensure that abused and neglected children removed from their homes have courtroom advocacy, access to services and resources and the individual attention they deserve.

The Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocate program is a nonprofit organization with mission to ensure that children have the right to a safe and permanent home. CASA volunteers are trained to bring urgency to a child's situation, working tirelessly so that children's best interest is promoted and protected.

The first three CASA volunteers were appointed by our judge in January 1989. Since that first class, hundreds of CASA volunteers have helped more than 3,800 children. In a volunteer training class, you might meet a nurse, grandfather, real estate agent, student, survivor of abuse, small business owner, attorney or retired teacher. If you ask volunteers about their initial involvement, you'll hear them talk about wanting to make a difference, their love for children or a desire to give back to their community.

What all volunteers come to share is a deep appreciation for what children overcome, a great understanding and respect for adversity and resiliency, and an intimate knowledge of how parents, caregivers and society treat children.

Kathy Vining, a CASA volunteer in Hall County said, "As God's people in Christ, we are blessed to be a blessing to others. Serving as a special advocate for children in need is a wonderful and beautiful way to give honor and glory to God. Being a CASA is one of the best gifts I have ever received!"

With firsthand knowledge, CASA volunteers make independent recommendations to a juvenile court judge regarding a child's current and future needs. While courtroom representation is the culmination of a CASA volunteer's work, there is much more that demonstrates their advocacy.

CASA volunteers travel to make numerous visits and spend countless hours getting to know the children, meeting with their families, Department of Family and Children Services personnel and a variety of providers and professionals involved in the case, as well as review multiple criminal, medical, psychological and educational records.

CASA volunteers know how to advocate for services and resources and engage family members in their cases. Ultimately, CASA helps ensure that a child's needs and wishes are kept at the forefront of all pertinent decisions and are not overlooked. CASA volunteers are the eyes and ears of the judge and a voice for the child.

CASA volunteers participate in 30 hours of training, including courtroom observation, to prepare them for this responsibility and the court's expectations. Once trained and appointed, CASA volunteers are supported on a daily basis by CASA staff. Last year alone, more than 160 volunteers advocated for 397 children who had been removed from their homes in Hall and Dawson counties.

We are fortunate to be able to serve 100 percent of the children in our juvenile courts. Our program continues to recruit volunteers so that every child can experience the benefits of having a CASA and a chance for hopeful future. Our next training class will begin in February.

The 21-year journey of CASA in Hall County has had the support of many people and organizations including juvenile court judges, child welfare professionals, legislators and many donors and funders. Without the support, dedication and compassion of individuals, volunteers, staff, board members and donors throughout the years, we would not be able to celebrate the collective achievements or envision a future in which all children served will have safe and permanent homes.

Because of the support of our community, we are pleased to have moved into our new home, the Little House at 603 Washington St. This home will better serve the needs of our children and it could not have been a reality without the help of this community. For this we are blessed and grateful to so many who have made this possible.

Matthew 25:40, reads, "And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'"

In the spirit of the season, we would like to thank everyone for what they have done for one of the least of these: our children. We wish you and your family a blessed holiday season.

Anyone who is interested in making a tax deductible contribution or volunteering is encouraged to call 770-531-1964, visit our website or write us at P.O. Box 907471 Gainesville, GA.

Connie Stephens is executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocate program.

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