An advocacy program for abused and neglected youngsters has 30 new volunteers whose job is to ensure those children don’t get lost in the legal system.
“Get ready to go to work,” said Connie Stephens, director of Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocates, at a Thursday night volunteer recognition dinner and swearing-in ceremony at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville.
Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff swore in the group, the largest class of new trainees ever assembled by the organization.
“With some volunteer organizations, you can just kind of show up and start doing some volunteer work,” he said. “Not CASA. You’ve got to do all this schoolwork and experiential stuff, coming into court and witnessing some of what you’re going to get into.
“It’s a way-big commitment and ... we really thank all of you so much.”
Lindsay Burton, who was named a Hall juvenile court judge in September, also addressed the group.
“You’re going to see things that you can’t believe,” she said. “There are days that are really hard ... but hang in there, because we need you.
“Oftentimes, you know more about the family, the parents and the relatives, more than the parents’ attorneys and maybe even” the Department of Family and Children Services, Burton said.
DFCS is a state agency that investigates child abuse and finds foster homes for abused and neglected children, among other duties.
Thursday’s event had a few emotional moments.
Mary Lou Downs, 15, a Flowery Branch High School student who was a CASA child at an early age, spoke to the group, which also included family members of volunteers.
“I was taken from my birth parents when I was 2,” she said, going on to describe physical abuse she suffered.
CASA “has been here for me since the beginning and is still a big part of my life,” the aspiring lawyer said. “It’s more than just an organization — they’re family.”
Downs, who was later adopted, also thanked the new volunteers for their future service “and the difference you’re going to make in children’s lives.”
Stephens said that because of the group’s volunteers, “these children won’t have to worry about where they will live, the next meal they may get, being left unsupervised.”
“These kids will have a chance for a bright future,” she added.
Getting choked up, Stephens said she still contacts children she served 25 years ago.
“They’re still very much a part of my life. These kids are going to impact your life forever,” she said.