CASA is a national organization that provides a legal advocate for children who have no family or have been removed from their families.
Melodie Smith, executive director of CASA of Polk and Haralson counties, spoke with The Cedartown Standard about the association and its plans for 2013.
“We recruit, train and supervise volunteers to be advocates for children that are in foster care,” Smith said. “Basically we become the voice of the child. By national law, every time a child comes into DFACS custody, they have to have a legal advocate. If we can’t provide a volunteer to do that, then the court has to hire an attorney on their budget, so CASA is a huge savings on tax dollars.”
The next training program will begin on Feb. 25.
The free program consists of a total of 10 classes plus courtroom observation over a few weeks and will take place in the Polk County Courthouse No. 2. Smith said that the program is 40 hours long and will train volunteers how to properly advocate for children in the courtroom.
“It’s really great training,” Smith said. “They learn about the juvenile court system and laws. And they learn about the drug issues that we face and poverty and child development. It’s really interesting.”
In 2012, CASA of Polk and Haralson County served 221 children, which Smith said was double what they had served in 2011.
Smith said that she can’t predict how many children they will help this year, but with more volunteers she said that CASA could help as many as 300 or more.
Smith said that CASA currently has 34 volunteers, but she would love to have 34 more.
“There are still cases that we have to turn down because we don’t have enough volunteers,” Smith said. “Between our two counties, there are typically 200 children in foster care and we just haven’t had the volunteers to service that [many].”
“To be a volunteer typically only involves between one and five hours a month,” Smith said.
She said that after the training and first few weeks of volunteer work, all the advocate does is make one visit per month to visit the child and monitor the case.
To qualify to be a volunteer, interested parties must be at least 21 years of age, consent to a criminal background check, supply four references and participate in training.
Once the training is complete, volunteers are sworn in as an officer of the court and can be appointed by a judge to a specific case.
“After that, CASA becomes the eyes and ears of the judge and the voice of the child,” Smith said.
“The best CASA’s are seniors,” Smith said. “They are retired have all this wisdom and life experience, and they have time on their hands.
Any time that we have a senior [volunteer], they tend to stick with us. It doesn’t take a lawyer or a degree; we want everyday people with common sense who can mentor. It’s a way to give back to your community.”
CASA of Polk and Haralson consists of Smith, who manages and supervises the staff and handles sustainability, and two volunteer coordinators, Chase Watterson and Belinda Bentley, who handle the training and supervision of the volunteers.
Smith said that she recently hired a part-time recruitment coordinator, Karen Ivester, who schedules training classes and recruitment events.
For more information on CASA of Polk and Haralson and the upcoming training program, call 770-748-2414 or visit www.polkharalsoncasa.org.