A Greenwood woman still receives updates from a child she helped in 1993 — now an adult in her 30s.
After she volunteered for a county program that assigns advocates to children in court cases, Ebbie Crawford got her first case. That case, involving a little girl she will never forget, dragged on in court for five years — about three years longer than what is typical. But Crawford stuck with it, continuing to advocate for the child at the center of the decisions the court was making.
The girl — now a grown woman — still calls Crawford to keep her updated on her life.
“Bless her heart, she’s 34,” Crawford said. “Every once in a while, she’ll call because I just never change my phone (number).”
Crawford is one of the longest-serving volunteers with the Johnson County Court Appointed Special Advocates program. Now, she trains new volunteers in what they will need to do to help the children involved in the court cases they are assigned.
What do they do?
Advocates are assigned to represent children whose families are involved in court cases, such as abuse or neglect cases in the juvenile and family court system. The volunteers serve as another adult, who can enter that child’s life and be an advocate for their interests in the court case.
Volunteers give up their free time to learn about a child’s home life, relationships, interests and ultimately clue in the judge on what is best for the child. After observing their lifestyle and relationships, the advocates recommend to the judge whether or not the children should be under parental care or if they need to live elsewhere.
The volunteers are a judge’s eyes and ears outside the courtroom, Judge Marla Clark said. For example, if a parent is assigned to drug or alcohol rehabilitation but has skipped multiple sessions, it is typically the advocate who alerts the judge.
In nearly all cases, children want to ultimately return home to the environment they grew up in, program director Tammi Hickman said.
Looking to grow
Currently, the county has nearly 60 volunteers — the most in the program’s history. Unfortunately, that number is not enough for the program’s needs, Hickman said.
Hickman needs 100 volunteers to help all children in the court system right now, she said.
Local courts are handling 160 child-in-need-of-services cases, which include cases of neglect, sexual abuse or drug addiction, compared to last year’s 120.
Four years ago, the program reached a 10-year high of 349 cases.
For each case, state law requires a child to be assigned a court-appointed special advocate. Although some advocates can take on more than one case, many newer volunteers cannot handle the emotional strain by tackling multiple cases at once. Some children in the court system do not receive an advocate because there are not enough volunteers to go around.
Volunteers must be someone that children can trust but are not necessarily their friend. The job is emotionally demanding, and many volunteers burn out quickly due to the weight of the cases, Hickman said.
If she can find a volunteer to be with a child from the beginning to the end of their case, which could take more than two years, Hick-
man counts that as a success.
Hickman and Crawford have heard plenty of people say they could never volunteer for the program. But being an advocate takes no special skills, other than to be a good listener, Crawford said.
The majority of volunteers work full time on top of spending upward of 20 hours per week, if needed, with a child in the juvenile and family court system.
Keeping emotions in check
Jay Smale became an advocate two months ago, filling the free time he had since his children graduated from high school. His two sons were involved in sports, and Smale often was a coach. Now, his energy is spent on the cases.
In the short time he has been a volunteer, Smale has kept a key lesson in mind.
“You can’t (get emotionally involved) and do a good job,” Smale said. “But I know where and how to draw the boundaries, so I’m not going to get overly emotionally involved.”
Crawford now works as the trainer for new volunteers and does not plan to retire anytime soon from the program. She joined almost 22 years ago after seeing an advertisement and worked for years as a team with her husband, though he no longer volunteers as an advocate.
“I looked at that ad, and I thought, ‘Something is drawing me to this,’” Crawford said. “I’ve tried to retire several times. There’s always another child that grabs my heart.”
She remembers many of her cases over the years. One sticks out in her mind.
Crawford helped reunite a child with his mother who had given up parental rights 10 years prior. After 28 unsuccessful placements in a foster home, Crawford and others located the mother in Indianapolis and were able to have him return home.
To become a Court Appointed Special Advocate, volunteers are required:
- To be 21 or older, have no criminal record and be able to pass a background check.
- Complete 30 hours of classroom training before becoming a licensed advocate.
For more information, call Tammi Hickman at 346-4561.
“I looked at that ad, and I thought, ‘Something is drawing me to this.’ I’ve tried to retire several times. There’s always another child that grabs my heart.”
Ebbie Crawford, longtime CASA volunteer