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CASA agencies seeking more child advocates
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Court Appointed Special  Advocate training courses

Hall-Dawson County CASA
When: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays Aug. 14-Oct. 2
Where: 603 Washington St., Gainesville
Contact: 770-531-1964, www.halldawsoncasa.org

Piedmont CASA
When: Tuesdays Sept. 4-Oct. 30 and Oct. 2- 30
Where: Jackson County Courthouse, Suite 210, Jefferson
Contact: 706-387-6375, www.piedmontcasa.org

Though they didn’t do anything wrong, a child placed in foster care can be scared and confused.

That’s where Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers step in.

Volunteers like Jerry Gauerke and Tami Ballew act as the eyes and ears for the court and as the voice for the children they help.

They are sworn to find out what is in the best interest of the child.

“It’s making a difference in the child’s life where they have no control and they have someone speaking for them,” Gauerke said.

Hall-Dawson CASA is looking for at least 10 more volunteers to take part in a training program that begins Aug. 14.

Piedmont CASA for Barrow, Jackson and Banks counties will begin training Sept. 4. Volunteers must be over 21 years old, have a clean background check and “have a heart for children.”

Applications are available online or by calling the local CASA office.

Volunteers will find out everything they can about the child by interviewing neighbors, teachers and family. From the information they gather, they’ll offer their recommendations to the court.

Gauerke said volunteers aren’t psychiatrists or attorneys, just regular people saying what they think is best for the child.

Volunteers don’t need to have experience or knowledge of the court system to be able to help. They will spend a few hours a week, for eight weeks training to learn the signs of abuse and what they’ll need to do in the court room.

“It’s a very intense training, they learn everything they need to know to investigate a child’s situation,” said Lisa McCarthy, Hall-Dawson CASA advocacy coordinator.

After volunteers finish training, they’ll be sworn in and given a case. All cases and volunteers will be overseen by a CASA supervisor.

Before Ballew got involved with CASA, she was a foster parent in North Carolina. After moving to Georgia, the mother of five wanted to continue to help children but didn’t have the space in her home for another child. She was sworn in three years ago.

“It just seemed like the next logical step to be able to help the kids,” Ballew said.

Gauerke became a volunteer last October after being laid off from his job. He wanted to be involved with helping children while he went back to school.

In 2011, CASA worked with 439 children. So far in 2012, volunteers have worked with 350.

Around 10 percent of the children are victims of physical abuse, but 75 percent are there because of neglect.

“Unfortunately, everyone thinks that if kids are in foster care their parents have done something horrific,” Ballew said.

Neglect can happen for a lot of reasons; parents may have lost a job and are unable to provide basic necessities or they may have lost their home.

But 75 percent of cases are also because of parental drug abuse. Ballew said there are a lot of cases in which parents get injured and get hooked on prescription painkillers.

The courts will outline a plan for parents to get their children back. The goal is for children to be placed in a permanent home, either with their parents, a relative or with an adoptive family.

“Our goal is to reunify every child with their parents, and every time that’s not possible, but most of the time it is,” McCarthy said.

Volunteers will follow up with parents and children once a month to make sure the child is safe. Volunteers are often invited to birthday parties and other special moments because they are someone the child knows cares for them.

Ballew said it is worth all of the effort to see a child get what they deserve and see parents turn their lives around for the better.

“People say I can’t believe you do it and you don’t get paid. But I don’t think I could get paid anymore than I do by seeing a child succeed and seeing their smiles,” Ballew said.

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