Loudon County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program has made strides this year by doubling its volunteers, landing a physical office space and adding board members.
CASA, which is made of up volunteers appointed by Loudon County General Sessions and Juvenile Judge Hank Sledge, advocates for children in the court system who have faced abuse and/or neglect. Volunteers attend training sessions to prepare for the potential situations they may encounter while helping children inside and outside the courtroom.
The typical “lifetime” for CASA volunteers is three years, which puts a strain on how CASA can help local children in need.
“That’s why we’re always pushing for new volunteers because it’s heavy,” Mandi Wolfe, Loudon County CASA program coordinator, said. “The things that you see, it weighs on you. A lot of the volunteers, after three years, they say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do it anymore.’ This really isn’t for everyone. That’s another thing. This really is geared toward a certain individual. A lot of people think, ‘I’ll volunteer as a group,’ or ‘This will be a group thing.’ This is really an individualized giving of one’s time. It’s got to really be the right fit, so I guess it’s more difficult to find a volunteer as well because it is such a specific category.”
Despite the challenges, CASA has doubled its volunteers since July 29 when Wolfe started the program coordinator position.
“I came on board and I had five active volunteers,” she said. “We have had one completed training class, and then we’re actually about to graduate another training class, so that’s going to put me at the end of the year at 11 or 12 (volunteers).
“We doubled, but we’ve also added in another training class,” she added. “We normally do a fall class and a spring class, but there was such need to get more volunteers in, so we opened it up for another training class so we were able to get some volunteers that way.”
Wolfe hopes to grow to 25 volunteers to adequately assist with trials.
“I feel like we would be able to be a bigger presence for the children that are in our court system,” she said. “Right now, Loudon County alone is serving 19 children. That’s a fraction of the children that come through our court system, so more volunteers, more kids served, better outcomes.”
By assisting children inside and outside the courtroom, CASA hopes to ensure children have a positive adult in their lives.
“I can think of several children that would have had delayed or no services had there not been a CASA volunteer,” Heather Moore Francis, CASA of the Tennessee Valley executive director, said in an email correspondence. “The court system is a very stressful and scary process for adults, let alone a child. A child with a CASA volunteer has a caring compassionate adult who will be there for them through the process, speak up for them, listen to them and relay all that they have learned and discovered to the judge in a report. Because of this intentional care and focus on a child the child’s cases are more likely to be move quicker, have the services delivered sooner, and an overall care to the child’s whole being is carefully monitored by a CASA volunteer and the judge is given the all the information he needs to make the best decisions for a child’s future placement and care.
“For Loudon County to see their children having all the services they need and children to not have delayed or no services when they are so needed our hope is that these children will grow to be active and contributing adults in their communities,” she added. “Because a caring, compassionate adult took the time to invest and advocate for them, they will have those opportunities to thrive.”
CASA has served 22 children year-to-date, but trial lengths and the judge’s invitation can often impede how many volunteers can help children.
“Our judge is very aware of CASA and where we’re at in our program,” Wolfe said. “I feel like he is very gracious that he doesn’t not give when he could or give too many cases when we can’t handle it. Our volunteers only take one to two cases at a time, and a case can last anywhere from three months to two years. If you have one volunteer tied up on a two-year case, it’s really hard to keep serving those children that come through because the children aren’t going to stop coming through. That’s why if you have a bigger amount of advocates, you’re able to keep handing them off as they close cases.”
In 2018, there were 400 reported cases of child abuse in Loudon County, Francis said.
Many are unaware of the situations some of the county’s children face, Wolfe said.
“I love the opportunity to help people in our community,” she said. “I have two small children, and when they entered the school system, it was as if my bubble was burst because I saw there were just so many scenarios of children who need and who don’t have the same home life. I’m helping the youth ministry at my church, and you see these kids who don’t come from the nuclear family, and they’ve got hardships, and they’re kids and they shouldn’t have to bear those burdens.
“For me, I really feel like my calling is to be that adult that plays that role in any child’s life, that they depend on them, that they’re a safe place,” she added. “That’s really what our volunteers want.”
CASA has landed a brick-and-mortar office space to assist volunteers and children. The organization has also created new positions on its board, further solidifying the organization’s mission in the county.
“For many years very few people even knew what CASA was around Loudon, and our children were not getting served,” Jeff Harris, board chairman, said in an email correspondence. “We have added additional board members from Loudon and am very proud to say we have not only doubled our advocates but have now employed a full-time program coordinator for Loudon along with a physical location, which I believed was critical, right in downtown Loudon. I expect great things to continue for CASA in Loudon with the main focus on helping and serving our children with safe and secure homes.”