About Connie Little Stephens
Length of time in Gainesville: My entire life
Education: Gainesville College and Lanier Technical College, where I studied child and family development; certified as a nonprofit manager by the Learning Institute of the University of Wisconsin; Justice Center of Atlanta studying juvenile deprivation mediator
Occupation: Executive director, Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocate program, a nonprofit organization serving abused and neglected children.
Most interesting job: Current job of 22 years with CASA
Family information: Married to Tony C. Stephens. We are blessed with two adult children and their spouses, Mitch and Kara Stephens, Andy and Mandy Bangs and four beautiful grandchildren and a fifth one on the way.
Each Monday, “5 Questions” asks someone in our community to answer five questions about their lives. If you know someone who would be a good subject for this feature, send their name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connie Stephens has spent more than two decades advocating for needy and neglected children as executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocates program. The program she heads fights solely on what is in the best interest of children who are being abused, mistreated or neglected.
Today, The Times asks Connie Stephens five questions about her passion and about how others in the community can help.
1. What responsibilities do you seek from a CASA volunteer?
To qualify, prospective volunteers must be at least 21 years old, consent to a criminal records check, fingerprinting, supply four references and participate in a 40-hour training program. Once they complete training and are screened by our agency, the CASA will be sworn in by the judge.
Appointed by the judge to a specific case at the time a deprivation petition is filed, the CASA serves as the lay Guardian Ad Litem, acting as an advocate, investigator and monitor whose sole responsibility is to focus on what is in the best interests of the child. The judge will issue the CASA a court order on the case assigned. CASA volunteers are trained, supervised and supported by staff.
CASAs become the eyes and ears of the judge and the voice for the child. CASAs will conduct interviews and assessments with all parties involved, review records and research the case before making written and verbal recommendations to the court regarding deprivation, custody, placement and services needed for children and their families. CASA volunteers and staff will attend all hearings to represent the children and make recommendations regarding best interest.
CASA will continue to monitor the child and strongly advocate to ensure the child’s physical, emotional, educational and developmental needs are addressed. CASA provides follow-up on the family to ensure safety and permanency of the children as well as compliance or noncompliance of the court order.
CASA volunteers make a difference and are giving children a brighter future, but there are many children still in need, still waiting for the abuse to stop, still hoping to find a home. You can help these children by volunteering your time or resources. Volunteers average between five and 20 hours a month. We host spring and fall classes annually.
2. What type of personality is best suited to handle this task?
Volunteers come from all walks of life. It doesn’t take a law or social work degree to be an effective advocate.
We need people who are compassionate, competent, objective, dependable, trustworthy, dedicated, professional, nonjudgmental, culturally sensitive, diverse, tolerant, empathetic, patient, intuitive, resilient, respectful, credible, accountable and committed. They must also have good communication, people and writing skills.
But most of all we need folks with passion and a heart for these innocent children.
3. What are the main needs for children your agency serves?
CASA provides representation and advocacy to children between the ages of birth to 18 years who are abandoned, victims of physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect. A large number of children are from high-risk family environments that include domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, economically disadvantaged, unstable employment and housing, school dropouts and mental illness.
Children should not have to worry about where they will live, the next meal they may get, being left unsupervised, having a safe place to lay their head at night, the fear of being left with strangers, exposed to drugs, domestic violence and child abuse.
All children need a safe, permanent and loving home. No child deserves less!
Our agency, through the generous support of this community helps provide for the needs of the children we serve. Often these children are removed from their home with a few clothes in a garbage bag. They may need clothes, shoes, medical care, dental care, counseling, tutoring, a bed, money for basketball camp, school sports, school pictures. All those things that we provide for our own children.
4. What is the one thing you wish more people in the community understood about CASA and its work?
It is each and every one of our responsibility — our moral obligation to assure the basic rights and needs of every child are met. Our children need to do more than simply survive. They need to thrive, in the safety and love of a family throughout their childhood and into adulthood. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental moral obligation, by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight to protect a child’s right to be safe, to learn and grow, and to be treated with dignity and respect.
Children need stable permanent homes without the threat of neglect, violence and drug abuse in order to grow into mature adults who contribute to the community. The individualized advocacy of the CASA focuses attention on this need.
America’s most valuable resource is our youth. Child abuse is costly. It cost us the promise and productivity of our children. It jeopardizes our next generation.
As a community, we all pay the cost of a variety of social problems linked to abuse. For as abused children grow up without any intervention, many often repay society for the violence they were forced to endure. Many fill institutions, populate prisons and detention centers. Many are permanently handicapped, walk the streets as prostitutes, runaways and delinquents.
A large number grow up to repeat the pattern with their own children. The final costs of abuse go much further than dollars and cents; the pain and suffering of children cannot be measured in dollars.
No institution is more important than a child. It will take the involvement of honest and ethical community members to make sure other institutions — including schools, child protection systems, churches and youth sports programs — put the best interest of their children above all else.
5. What are the most common causes that lead to a child needing to have an advocate in the courtroom?
We are seeing more families in crisis due to loss of jobs, housing and employment. We are also seeing more domestic violence, poverty, homelessness and drug abuse, which is often a factor in child abuse and neglect cases.
Almost every day, we hear about a child who has been mistreated, abused or even murdered. Through the eyes of an abused child, life can be frightening. Often, children are betrayed by the one they love and depend on the most for nurturing and stability.
As individuals we are appalled at crimes committed against innocent children but often we don’t know what we can do to help. It is our duty to spread the word so that every single American understands that the lives and well-being of children are hanging in the balance.
Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Ordinary, concerned citizens can offer hope to the next generation. I encourage you to get involved or support child and youth organizations in this community. Consider becoming a foster parent, a CASA volunteer, a mentor. Our children need your support! Breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect for future generations will have a lasting impact on our society. Our future depends on it!
For more information, you can contact CASA at 770-531-1964 or visit the CASA website .