Court-Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, are volunteers who work with the judicial system to end the suffering of neglected children by reviewing child deprivation cases and reporting to the courts on the best interests of the child.
The non-profit organization has offered programs nationally for several years and began serving Walker County in 1999 and Catoosa County in 2000.
Tracy Wimberley, director of Four Points CASA, which serves both counties, says the program continues to be successful despite a shortage of volunteers to handle the many cases facing area juvenile courts.
“If there’s a case that the judge feels would be appropriate for a CASA, they ask me to assign one,” Wimberley said. “A CASA volunteer is an impartial person that’s not on anyone’s side but the child. They make a huge difference.”
CASA volunteers interview family members, assess what the child’s best interest is and report to the juvenile court judge with their recommendation. Volunteers typically handle no more than two cases at a time, Wimberley said.
After the judge makes a decision on a case, CASA continues to monitor the case and meets regularly with the child, representatives of the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services, teachers, and parents.
The ultimate goal of CASA is to advocate for a safe, permanent home for each child.
To date, the Four Points CASA program in Catoosa County has helped 20 kids in 14 families and is presently involved with cases affecting 18 kids in 12 families, Wimberley said.
Volunteers are from many backgrounds
CASA volunteers come from many backgrounds, including retired military personnel, insurance agents and schoolteachers, Wimberley said.
Lonnie McCurry, a retired engineer, has been a CASA volunteer in Catoosa and Walker counties since Four Points CASA’s inception.
He said he opted to become a volunteer to give back to the community.
“I retired and was looking for some way to possibly help children,” McCurry said. “People really don’t understand the need of some of the children in our community. They don’t want to see it because it’s an ugly scene, but it’s here and all they’ve got to do is go to the juvenile court hearings and witness exactly what’s going on.”
McCurry said some of the cases are shocking but feels it would be worse to do nothing about the problem.
“Most of the cases are drug-related — the parents are on drugs and the children are just allowed to run into the street without any supervision,” McCurry said. “I was shell-shocked (when I started). In fact, I thought about getting out of it because it’s very disturbing but when you think ‘well, maybe I can help a little bit’ then you decide to continue on.”
Ann Brown, Four Points CASA’s most recent volunteer, had a similar perspective in wanting to volunteer.
“I’m retired and wanted to help children,” she said. “I feel good that I’ve been able to help make a difference in a child’s life.”
Brown feels that retirees who work as CASA volunteers have an advantage in their work on behalf of the children.
“I think that (retirement) gives us a viewpoint that younger people don’t have,” she said. “Most of us have raised children and seen them reach adulthood and they’ve done very well — we want to see these other children do as well.”
Buddy McCosar, a Marine Corps retiree and CASA volunteer who covers both counties, said his impoverished background as well as experience working in the prison system made him appreciate the need for the program in the community.
“I was busy in the prison system. After seeing all the convicts and hearing about their kids, I wondered who was taking care of their kids,” he said. “I grew up in poverty and understood what the situation was. I knew that there were people who were a lot worse off than I was that needed some kind of help.”
The volunteers say that, occasionally, their opinion differs from the state’s opinion of a case.
“When you see the judge go against a Department of Family and Children’s Services recommendation, and take your recommendation, that kind of tells you that ‘yeah, you were right on this one,’” McCurry said. “It gives you a good feeling.”
“We try to work with everybody involved, but we’re not always supposed to agree with what they say or do,” McCosar concurs.
Judge gives CASA program high marks
Catoosa County Juvenile Court Judge McCracken “Ken” Poston said the program gives the court system a powerful ally in determining what is best for the child.
“It’s a nice extra set of eyes and ears and another brain to think of the child’s situation other than just the court,” he said. “I find them very helpful.”
“We’re an independent voice and I like that,” McCurry said.
The judge said the CASA program is a variation of the ongoing use of guardian ad litems by the courts. Guardian ad litems typically handle delinquency cases, while CASA volunteers handle child deprivation cases, Poston said.
“I’m always amazed at how much time and interest they take in these children,” Poston said. “There are some real heartbreaking specific cases that the guardian ad litems and CASA volunteers have gone way out of their normal role to learn more about the families to get all the information they can.”
“My objective is to just monitor and investigate the welfare of the child regardless of wherever it’s placed,” McCurry said. “I go and nose around and make sure the child is being taken care of properly.