By Kendal Groner
On April 12, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Northeast Tennessee installed a pinwheel garden outside the Unicoi County Courthouse to recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.
CASA of Northeast Tennessee has partnered with Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee to create pinwheel gardens across the Northeast Tennessee community.
“The pinwheel has kind of taken on the symbolism that each pinwheel stands for a happy, healthy child who has been served by child advocacy programs such as CASA,” said Whitney McLaughlin, executive director for CASA of Northeast Tennessee. “When you see this, you see that someone has helped a child in need and now they are better off than they were before.”
CASA, a non-profit organization, works to recruit and train community volunteers to advocate on behalf of children who are in the court system as a result of abuse or neglect to ensure they get a safe and stable home. In order to become a volunteer, individuals must be at least 21 years of age, pass a background check and interview with current CASA workers.
“We have a 35-hour training course, and during that course they learn everything from court etiquette, how to write court reports, how to interview families and cultural diversity,” McLaughlin said.
Melanie Feathers, CASA program coordinator for Unicoi County, said they also teach volunteers how to see risk factors for abuse and neglect such as substance abuse or domestic violence.
CASA advocates are appointed by juvenile court judges and each court has its own coordinator on staff that is available to support and guide volunteers while acting as a liaison to the court.
“Anytime a child comes through the juvenile court system with allegations of abuse and neglect, we are appointed to some of those cases,” said McLaughlin.
CASA of Northeast Tennessee serves Washington, Green, and Unicoi counties, and in 2017 they were able to advocate for 329 youth in the region. Of the 329 youth, approximately 60 were from Unicoi County.
Feathers said that while seeing children placed in safe and stable homes is extremely rewarding, the process can at times be difficult, which is why the volunteers and coordinators work closely to create a support system for one another.
“The most taxing emotional part is on our volunteers because they are the ones visiting with the children regularly, and who are invested in seeing these families succeed,” said Feathers. “That’s another reason the coordinator is there to be available to them … one thing we try to do is be a sounding board for them and kind of walk through what’s happened with a case so they don’t internalize it all.”
The caseload for each volunteer is generally kept small, with only one or two cases at a time so that volunteers can be as available to the children and families as possible.
“We are always recruiting more volunteers because unfortunately abuse and neglect are not going away,” McLaughlin said. “We need new fresh blood to act as the child’s voice.”
She said they see many volunteers who are retired school teachers, nurses or military personnel. Some volunteers are employed; however, they need to be able to commit to at least three to four hours per week with CASA.
No prior experience is required, and anyone interested in becoming a volunteer is encouraged to contact CASA.
“What we really want to see in people is their willingness to serve children who have fallen through the cracks,” McLaughlin said. “If you feel in your heart that you love children and want to be their voice and create change in the world, then being a volunteer with CASA will definitely fulfill that vision.”
If you are interested in learning more about CASA of Northeast Tennessee or becoming a volunteer, contact Whitney McLaughlin at 461-3500, or email [email protected]
The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with CASA of Northeast Tennessee to host the 7th annual Achin’ for the Bacon 5K River Run on May 5. The cost to register is $25, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit CASA of Northeast Tennessee.
If you are interested in registering for the race, contact the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000.