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Editorial: Celebrating a longtime voice for children
Stephens spent 27 years helping families through turbulent times as head of CASA
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How to volunteer

Who can join: Volunteers most pass a criminal background check, be 21 or older, supply four references, commit to a year of volunteer service and maintain 10 hours of in-service training, among other requirements.

When: Training begins Aug. 9 and will be held 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays for a total of 40 hours.

Contact: Go to www.halldawsoncasa.org/how-to-help/volunteer/ for an application. Send to P.O. Box 907471, Gainesville, GA 30501-0908

Neglected and abused children have their fates decided in courtrooms full of adults speaking the language of the juvenile court system.

With much out of their control, they wait to hear when or if they’ll be able to go home or where they might be living next.

Before the Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, children had no representation of their own in those proceedings. In 1989, the Hall-Dawson CASA program was established to provide that voice.

Connie Stephens became its executive director in 1990 and has led the program’s growth to now include four volunteer supervisors, two staff attorneys/volunteer supervisors and a program coordinator along with numerous CASA volunteers. More than 5,000 children have been served in that time. It’s one of the most active CASA programs in the state.

Stephens’ passion for protecting these children is evident to anyone who meets her. Her tireless devotion to the work is evident in the continued focus of her staff and volunteers to gather as much information about children as they can to make the best recommendations to a judge.

Last week, a roomful of people gathered to honor her legacy as she retires from her leadership role. Juvenile judges past and present, CASA volunteers, board members and others gathered to sing her praises.

We echo those sentiments, and applaud her for her efforts over the years to help provide a voice to children caught up in the system at no fault of their own.

In honor of her passion, we’ll end the acclamations there and instead turn to the continued work of the agency Stephens helped to build.

The mission of CASA is simple: to ensure abused and neglected children have the right to a safe placement and permanent home.

Yet many in the community may not understand what a CASA actually does. The volunteer work is a bit more complicated than serving up plates of food to the homeless or assembling bookbags and school supplies for children in need.

Volunteering as a CASA doesn’t require a legal background, but it does demand 40 hours of training and a passion to help children.

Hall-Dawson CASA currently serves 411 children and has about 138 volunteers taking those cases. There are 10 more children who need a CASA volunteer, but none are available.

Every child in these circumstances deserves to have someone solely looking out for their best interests.

Training begins Aug. 9 for those interested in helping, and the weekly time commitment varies but can be about two to five hours. There is room for 20 in the upcoming training, with six having already signed up.

A CASA volunteer typically works with children who have been removed from their parents by the Division of Family and Children Services. Most often, that is due to neglect.

DFCS is charged with finding those children a home, which may be with relatives or a foster family. The agency then lays out a plan for parents to complete in order to provide a safe home for their children to return.

The case must go before a judge within 72 hours of children’s removal from their home and again 10 days later. Periodic reviews are held afterward.

A CASA volunteer sits at a table in the center of the courtroom and provides a report at each hearing, offering information gathered from teachers, relatives, doctors and others in children’s lives. The job is to advise the court on what resolution is in the best interest of the child. Often the CASA is the one most available to thoroughly investigate a case, due to the status of volunteer rather than overworked contract or state employee.

Meanwhile, a child’s attorney sits nearby and represents what the child says he or she wants, which sometimes may be out of the child’s control. For example, the child wants to live with a sober and capable version of their parent. The attorney then works to ensure the parent has resources to become that person.

A DFCS caseworker sits at another side, providing testimony on what the department has found. Parents also will have an attorney at the other side of the room who represents their interests. The judge hears from each party before ruling.

Each role provides an important piece of the puzzle, but the CASA is the only volunteer in the room, yet also often the person with the most time to devote to a single case. Hall’s judges have come to rely tremendously on their work.

That work may not always result in the desired outcome, but it can be rewarding when children find a home where they can thrive.

Those who have a passion for our most vulnerable residents should take the time to learn more about CASA and consider volunteering. CASA also accepts tax-deductible donations.

We believe Stephens would be most honored by seeing more people step up to help the children she has tirelessly served for 27 years.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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