CASA gives kids a voice in courtroom

CASA is the voice of children.

And the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program in the Wood County area needs more volunteers to provide a voice for children in neglect and abuse cases.

There are now 17 active CASA volunteers in this region to represent 279 children from birth to 17 years old. The number of children in the local CASA program usually ranges from 250 to 350.

Since Jan. 1, 145 new kids have qualified for CASA’s assistance. This is a dramatic rise in the number of children needing a voice in the courtroom, local CASA Director Margaret Burdette said.

The drug epidemic the past two to three years has driven up the number of child abuse and neglect cases, she said.

Burdette is working with 102 children who have been removed from their homes, along with her daily administrative duties and seeking grants for the program.

A lack of volunteers forces Burdette to work with more children.

Burdette said she is “bracing” for an increase in child abuse and neglect cases in early October once school starts and Child Protective Services of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is contacted by school officials.

“We need to get CASA volunteers trained,” Burdette said.

CASA wants to see children placed in a safe and stable home, Burdette said. The program works in the best interest of the child, she said.

Reunification of families is CASA’s goal, Burdette said. From December to June of this year, 76 children were placed back with their families. This is 25-30 percent of the children in the CASA program.

More men are needed as CASA volunteers to give the children a strong male role model, Burdette said. Some volunteers are grandparents while others are 20 to 30 years old.

Retirees and empty nesters might be interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, Burdette said.

CASA volunteers work in Wood (the most cases), Wirt, Ritchie and Pleasants counties.

Thirty hours of training on national CASA standards are required for volunteers. CASA volunteers usually spend five to 10 hours a month on a case or cases, and can train at anytime.

“It is easy to learn” to become a CASA volunteer, Burdette said.

Volunteers can select their cases and the age range of the children.

The volunteers normally meet with the children and families once a month to develop a bond or rapport with those involved.

As the voice of the child in the courtroom, CASA volunteers attend court hearings and meetings with Child Protective Services and attorneys, and submit written reports to judges about the children and families.

Parenting improvement plans are given to the adults.

“We want healthy families,” said Burdette, director of the nonprofit program for 19 years.

Burdette believes the CASA program is unique because it remains with the child until a satisfactory, permanent solution is reached.

“We give light and hope where a child sees fear and darkness,” she said.

Burdette has seen success stories with CASA — children reunited with their families and adoptions.

Kelly Polinsky of Parkersburg has been a CASA volunteer since 2016 and worked with a similar organization in Florida before that.

After meeting with a child and investigating his or her family life, the CASA volunteer makes an unbiased, factual and independent report to the judge on what’s best for the child, Polinsky said.

The judges rely on the recommendations of the CASA volunteers, she said. CASA volunteers speak for the children in the courtroom.

“CASA is an important job. Kids deserve a voice,” Polinsky said.

“It is rewarding but also soul-crushing sometimes,” Polinsky said. The reward is in keeping children safe, loved and cared for, and to see them succeed, she said.

Margaret Burdette can be contacted at 304-422-3390 or email voicesforchildrencasa@gmail.com.

Contact Paul LaPann at plapann@newsandsentinel.com

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