Imagine that you are a child who has experienced abuse with no trusted adults on your side as you stand before a judge who is about to change your life with his decision.
This terrifying scenario is one that CASA of Lafayette County volunteers are trying to eliminate. CASA, an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates, trains volunteers who work on behalf of abused and neglected children as their cases make their way through the Lafayette County court system.
University of Mississippi graduate Erin Smith worked hard to get the program off the ground over a year ago after serving as an advocate for 15 years in the Memphis CASA program. During the past year, Smith has seen many challenges and successes in her role as director.
“We have seen reunification of a family,” she said. “We have seen parents battle substance abuse by attending inpatient rehab that we recommended. We have seen children be more successful in school.”
Mississippi has 82 counties. A little over a year ago, the Lafayette County CASA program opened, becoming only Mississippi’s seventh county program and the first in North Mississippi.
According to the national organization’s website, CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to advocate for abused or neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Trained volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home.
In her first year at the helm, much of Smith’s time has been in recruitment mode. “I have spent a lot of time speaking to various organizations in Oxford about CASA,” she said. “I have been able to educate groups and individuals about what CASA is, and I’ve been able to open some eyes as to the issue we have right here in our county with child abuse and neglect. All of those things have been a success in the program’s eyes.”
Establishing the program has been challenging. The biggest challenge for Smith and her volunteers is making sure the decisions made are the right ones.
“The challenge will always be making the right recommendations for these children, hoping that whatever we decide is in the best interests of the child,” she said. “As a volunteer, you are making a decision that directly impacts these vulnerable children, and it is our great hope that we are always doing what is right and in their best interests.”
Last year, Mississippi had just over 5,400 children in the care of the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services. The CASA volunteers ensure that these children’s stories are known to the judges who decide their fate.
When one is available, the court can appoint an advocate for children as they go through the process of escaping a terrible home situation to make sure they receive the resources they need going forward.
In Lafayette County, children are served mostly in two courts – youth court and chancery court. Youth court handles cases involving abuse and neglect, which is primarily where CASA volunteers serve. Occasionally, an appearance may be necessary in chancery court if there are custody issues.
In a college town, getting permanent volunteers can be more difficult. However, Smith said Ole Miss students can get involved. “We currently have three volunteer advocates that are students,” she said. “We ask that you are able to commit at least one year to the job. Typically a case will last at least that or less.”
Ole Miss student Emily Mitchell is one of those student volunteers and was assigned her first case in October 2018. “As a student myself, I believe that the key to being a good advocate and a full-time student is time management and a good support system,” she said. “Being an advocate has helped me be more involved in our community while also teaching me real life experiences that the classroom could not.”
She said she has seen firsthand the struggles of children without a CASA advocate. Cases without an advocate can take much longer without someone responding quickly to the court’s orders and scheduling home visits, safety assessments and visitation with biological family members.
Advocates need to be 21 years old, but students of any age are welcome to volunteer at CASA fundraising or awareness events. Ole Miss has a CASA Club, created to educate the university community and to fundraise for the local CASA program.
“There are no requirements to join the club, so it is a good alternative for students who want to be involved, but cannot be a volunteer while in school,” Mitchell said.
Smith said there are volunteer opportunities during the coming CASA Superhero Run/Walk and Kid’s Fun Run, scheduled for March 30 at Avent Park. For more information, visit https://casasuperherorun.racesonline.com/