By Heather Mullinix
When children are pulled from their homes and separated from their parents, a dedicated group of volunteers steps in to ensure the best interests of that child are presented to the court.
"These children have been ripped out of their homes," said Lee Chiomos, Cumberland County CASA program director. "They are worried and scared. Sometimes they've been separated from their siblings. They have questions. We are the voice for these children so they can grow up in a stable, loving home."
Court Appointed Special Advocates are trained volunteers appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court. The Cumberland County program is operated by the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency and is supported by grant funds and donations.
In 2011, CASA had 13 advocates working with 41 children in Cumberland County. Chiomos said that number could be doubled if there were enough volunteers, but funding is needed to provide the extensive training necessary. It costs $950 per child per year to have a CASA volunteer. The costs of foster care can range from $16,000 up to $60,000. Statistics show that children can usually transition through the judicial system more quickly with the help of an advocate. The children are also less likely to re-enter the system.
To help raise funds to support the program, CASA is holding a demolition derby, set for Oct. 6 at the Cumberland County Community Complex. Donations of food for concessions and sponsorships are needed to make the event a success, as are volunteers to work at the event. Sponsorships will be recognized the night of the derby with announcements and banners, as well as on the CASA website, http://www.uchracasa4children.com.
Cumberland County CASA has been up and running for about two years, but Chiomos said many in the community don't understand the vital role of the advocates.
"We conduct an independent investigation about where children should be placed," she said. "We speak for the child, and we work closely with the Department of Children's Services."
Many times, children want to remain with their parents, even though that might not be the best place at that time. Advocates help explain the situation to the child and answer their questions about court proceedings.
"Court proceedings can be scary for the kids," Chiomos said. "We explain what's happening and that we want to represent their needs."
Advocates stay with a case from open to close, usually about a year. They meet a minimum of two to three hours a month with the child, but Chiomos said she's yet to see an advocate that didn't meet with the child almost weekly. They also work closely with DCS and meet with the attorneys for the children.
"The advocates bond with the child and make sure they are safe and their needs are being met," Chiomos said. "A lot of times, they'll open up to us and tell us what they're feeling and what they've gone through."
Those conversations, as well as information gleaned from visits to the home environment, foster home and school, goes into a detailed report that is given directly to Judge Larry Warner.
"CASA gives the court extra, independent eyes, and the analysis is focused only on the dependent and neglected children of our county," Warner wrote in a statement.
The oct. 6 event will begin at 6:30 p.m., and admission will be $10 for those age six and older. Children under 6 years of age will be admitted free. There will be classes for four cylinder, stock V8 and modified, with prizes for first, second and third place. Drivers can register for $25 per class. Inspection and registration begin at 4 p.m. and the drivers will meet at 6. All proceeds benefit Cumberland County CASA.
For more information, or to become a sponsor or volunteer, call 261-3814, 261-1311, or 267-6559.