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Children in need awaiting someone to speak for them

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In less than a year, the little girl lived in five foster homes, getting used to five different sets of foster parents, plus attorneys and social workers. But one adult remained the same.

Paul Fisherkeller visited her at least once per month, talking about how school was going, how she was fitting in at each new home and how she was feeling. As a volunteer for the county’s court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, program, Fisherkeller’s job is to represent children’s interests in court cases, such as neglect and abuse cases, custody disputes or criminal cases involving their parents.

He first met the girl in 2011 after she was removed from her parents’ home. She wanted to go back home, and bouncing among foster homes was stressful. His job was to relay that message to the court and help find a way to make that happen. About a year later, the court case was closed, and the girl was allowed to go back home to be with her family.

For Fisherkeller, the case shows his role as a volunteer in the program — if he weren’t there to speak for that little girl, her wishes might never have been heard.

More than 50 children whose families are now in court aren’t getting the kind of support Fisherkeller and other volunteers can provide.

The number of new cases requiring advocates has declined since a high point in 2011, but the program still doesn’t have enough volunteers to help every child, program director Tammi Hickman said. About

65 volunteers were working 250 cases at the end of 2013. Some volunteers take on multiple cases at once, but 55 children are on a waiting list to get an advocate.

Children involved in neglect or abuse cases are the first priority, since an advocate is required by state law when the Department of Child Services files a case. Courts also may request an advocate in other cases, such as custody disputes or when parents are being held in jail for criminal charges.

Advocates check in with the child at least once per month, attend supervised visits with parents or hearings with child services, write updates for the judge and speak for the child in court. Representing children can mean explaining what’s happening in a case and what it means, asking how they’re feeling and figuring out where they want to live or with whom, even if that means going against the children’s parents.

The roster of advocates is all volunteers, and more are needed, Hickman said.

“The role of the CASA program is to provide a voice for the children that are involved in these cases, to make sure that the children aren’t falling through the cracks,” Hickman said. “These cases are all about the kids, and they’re usually the last one thought about or consulted with.”

The advocate becomes a stable face for children who have been abused or neglected, removed from their home or are caught in the middle of their parents’ legal problems and surrounded by confusing changes in their life, Fisherkeller said.

The advocates also can help Department of Child Services workers, since they can sometimes visit with the child more often than a state case worker, volunteer Arlene Ballard said. In one of her cases, a

baby’s father wanted to have unsupervised visits and work toward getting custody, but she went to the home and saw how many people were living in the small space and knew it wasn’t a good fit, she said.

The child was too young to express wants and feelings, but Ballard worked to find an alternative home, and the child was eventually placed with a relative. That didn’t make her popular with the parents, but she felt she helped find the best option to make sure the baby grew up in a loving, safe and stable household, she said.

“You can get very attached to these kids,” she said.

One child she is working with now pats the couch next to her and asks Ballard to play every time she visits because that is how they have interacted, Ballard said.

The volunteers are required to meet with the child at least once a month, but advocates may devote more time to their cases during busy periods, such as court hearings or trials, where they may need to file reports or testify, Hickman said.

For Ballard, the time commitment is still small enough each month, even during busy times, that she can volunteer while working a 35-hour per week job, she said.

Volunteers go through a 30-hour training program that teaches them how to do the job and interact with the children and gives examples of situations they might run into. Fisherkeller was apprehensive when he decided to get involved. He didn’t have any experience working with children outside of raising four of his own, but the training program made him more confident.

Through volunteering, he has been able to help get a child’s life back to normal after a chaotic period, Fisherkeller said.

“If you love kids and you love children, and you see the potential of each child, and if you can make some small contribution toward helping that child along the path of life in their formative years, that itself is reward enough,” he said.

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