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Helping Kids Find Their Voice With New Big Country CASA Program

The state’s newest program of volunteers specifically trained to speak up for abused and neglected children, Big Country CASA, officially opens on Friday, April 4 in Taylor County.
The state’s newest program of volunteers specifically trained to speak up for abused and neglected children, Big Country CASA, officially opens on Friday, April 4 in Taylor County.

Twelve volunteers and one staff person who have completed extensive training through Big Country CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates®) to provide quality advocacy for children in foster care will be sworn in at the Taylor County Courthouse.

“This comes at an opportune time, April, which is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month,” said Diane Dotson, executive director of Regional Victim Crisis Center.

Every eight minutes, a child is a victim of abuse or neglect in Texas. Last year, 156 children died because of abuse and neglect – that is a child was murdered every 60 hours, according to statistics from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Big Country CASA is part of a national movement to provide quality advocacy for children who are placed in the overburdened foster care system. There are more than 900 member CASA programs nationally. Big Country CASA becomes the 71st CASA program in Texas.

The 70 Texas programs with more than 7,600 CASA volunteers last year served more than 23,600 children in foster care in 206 of the 254 counties.

Still half of the children in the state’s custody did not have CASA volunteers to help them through a very scary time.

“Imagine the impact on your child or grandchild if suddenly she was taken away from her family and placed with strangers. She probably would not be able to take her clothes and toys with her. She might be separated from her brother or sister. Her world has been completely turned upside down,” said Alana Maddox, program director for Big Country CASA.

“Then adults, strangers, introduce themselves to her. They say they are a caseworker, a therapist and attorney, but she doesn’t know what that means. They ask her questions but all she knows is that because she told someone that she had been hurt or someone noticed something was wrong, she was taken away from her home. Imagine how traumatic that would be for your child or a child you know.”

“CASA volunteers are ordinary people who do extraordinary work on behalf of children, who through no fault of their own, are placed in the foster care system,” said Diane Dotson, executive director of the Regional Victim Crisis Center which is overseeing Big Country CASA.

“There has been tremendous community interest in opening a CASA program in Taylor County for some time and we are pleased that the judges who serve our community agreed that now is the time to provide this important service for our vulnerable children,” said Maddox.

Another class of 10 volunteers will start training in April and, after they finish their training, will join the existing 12.

326th District Court Judge Aleta Hacker, with input from other Taylor County judges, was instrumental in completing the paperwork to make Big Country CASA official.

According to the DFPS, 225 Taylor County children were in the state’s foster care system in fiscal year 2013, which ended Aug. 31, 2013. The state investigated 2,667 allegations of abuse and neglect in Taylor County and confirmed that 494 children were victimized.

“That means that every day, more than one child was physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused and neglected in our community,” said Maddox.

With an overburdened foster care system, where caseworkers handle an average of 31 cases which can involve large sibling groups, children are at risk for being trapped in the foster care system.

Too often they are moved repeatedly which adds to the trauma, Maddox said.
“Research shows that children who spend time in foster care are at higher risk for becoming homeless, suffering from addiction and other mental health issues, teen pregnancies, dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system,” said Vicki Spriggs, chief executive officer of Texas CASA, the state association of CASA member programs.

Because CASA volunteers are assigned one case at a time, they have the ability to spend time getting to know all about the child or sibling group. They interview biological family members, foster parents, friends, teachers, therapists and doctors to get the big picture of what is happening so they can make informed recommendations to the court about what is in a child or sibling group’s best interest, said Spriggs. A CASA volunteer’s charge is to find that child or sibling group a safe, permanent, loving home as quickly as possible.”

“Children with CASA volunteers are more likely to spend less time in foster care, which is good for the children and good for taxpayers. One year of CASA advocacy – about $2,000 to train and support a CASA volunteer – is cheaper than one month of foster care,” said Spriggs.

Children in foster care with CASA volunteers are more likely to do better in school and graduate from high school and are more likely to get the services they need to begin to heal, Spriggs said. “CASA volunteers have the opportunity to literally change a child’s life.”

CASA programs are nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations that are funded primarily with private donations and fees and fines collected by people who are convicted of crimes through the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund and Victims of Crimes Act.

For information or to support about Big Country CASA, contact Alana Maddox, program director for Big Country CASA at (325) 677-6558 or email her at alana@regionalcrime.org.

Right now, Big Country CASA is only is Taylor County, but there are plans in place to expand it to the surrounding counties.

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