Five volunteers took an oath earlier this week to serve in the best interest of Webster Parish children, bringing the total number of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in Webster Parish to 12.
"I am so proud of my volunteers," said Sandra Samuel, CASA Director for Webster Parish. "These concerned people come from all walks of life. Some are parents or grandparents. From working full time at a job or as a mom to being retired, they all have a strong desire to make a difference in the life of a child."
Melissa Harris, one of the new CASA volunteers, said the process to become a CASA was not difficult.
"I heard about it through Sandra and once I learned about it, I thought it would be a great opportunity to help kids who are in need," Harris said. "I'm looking forward to helping kids get out of the foster system faster, or getting them in a better situation than what they are in right now."
Harris is a full-time mother with four children and two stepchildren.
"It was actually pretty easy," Harris said. "It was just two classes on Saturdays and there is some homework to do, but it is fairly easy, too. And it helps you prepare for how to be a CASA and how to handle situations."
Samuel said each of the 12 volunteers will receive a case which may have one child or multiple siblings involved.
"Right now we have 17 cases," she said. "With 12 CASAs, we still have five cases left without a volunteer, and that number can change during a month as kids move in and out of the system."
This means children in Webster, Bienville, Jackson and Claiborne Parish areas are still in need of CASAs who will advocate for them.
"Anyone who will volunteer and complete training is needed," Samuel said. "The system is heavy with children who need adults to look after their best interest."
Being a loving, responsible adult with a dedication to seeing children in the best environment possible is all that is needed to be a volunteer.
"You don't have to have a degree or experience in child care or even children of your own," Samuel said. "You just have to care about others."
CASA believes that every child should have a safe and permanent home and works toward that goal by training volunteers to speak on the best interest of abused and neglected children.
"When a judge appoints CASA to a case, that CASA volunteer becomes an official part of the judicial proceedings as an officer of the court," Samuel explained. "Unlike attorneys and social workers, CASA volunteers speak exclusively for the child's best interest."
According to Volunteers for Youth Justice, which oversees CASA in northwest Louisiana, abused and neglected children stay in temporary foster care for an average of three and a half years.
When CASA is appointed to a case, the time spent in foster care is reduced to 18 months.
Annually, foster care costs U.S. tax payers more than $6 billion and more than 7,000 Louisiana children are put through court, through no fault of their own.
"These children, they have had such a hard start in life," Samuel said. "They go through the court and the system, and the only thing they are guilty of is being a victim of violence, psychological torment or sexual abuse. Most of them are frightened and confused. They need an adult voice, which will speak for them. That is what a CASA worker is, and we need more."
CASA volunteers have three responsibilities to serve as a fact-finder for the judge by thoroughly researching the background of each assigned case, to speak for the child in the courtroom, representing their best interest and to continue to act on behalf of the child during the life of the case, ensuring the case is brought to a swift, appropriate conclusion.