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CASA seeks volunteers to work with local youth

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Northeast Tennessee is looking for volunteers to serve as advocates for children in Unicoi County.
Leslie Dalton, volunteer coordinator for CASA, explained that the main goal for volunteer advocates is to work with children, who through no fault of their own, have wound up in the court system and ensure they are in safe, permanent homes.  She added that Unicoi County is a particular area of need.
“We really need volunteers in Unicoi County,” Dalton said. “There is really more of a need in Unicoi County than in other counties. I have seven volunteers, and we only like to give them two cases on average because we want them to be able to spend time with the children and to build a rapport with the family.”
However, with only seven volunteers in Unicoi County and 52 cases since July, Dalton has had to pull volunteers from other counties to help manage the caseload.
“To have volunteers from Unicoi County in Unicoi County would be great,” she said. “If the community could step up and volunteer, it would be better for the children and for the courts.”
As child advocates, volunteers will be assigned cases by a juvenile court judge, which they will then investigate. Through their investigation, volunteers will conduct home assessments, interview parents, grandparents, foster parents, teachers, doctors and anyone else who observes the child or has knowledge of the home environment.  Volunteer advocates also spend time with the children involved and act as their voice in court by telling the judge what the child wants and needs. From there, volunteers and court officials can help children and families get the services they need, such as counseling, help in school and parenting classes.
“Our volunteers are the voice of the children,” Dalton said, “and they are the eyes and ears of the judge. The judge makes the final decision, but our volunteers give the judge a clear picture of what’s going on with a case.”
However, a volunteer’s top priority is the welfare of the children they serve.
“Our main goal is to make sure children are in safe, permanent homes,” Dalton said. “We conduct investigations, but our main responsibility is to accurately report back to the judge, so that he can make a decision.”
Dalton said most of the children CASA work with come from homes where they have been neglected or homes that are no longer safe environments for the child.
“A lot of our cases are neglect cases,” she said, “where parents aren’t taking care of their children. We deal with drug problems, alcohol problems and domestic abuse. If a child needs to be out of the home, a judge will assign a CASA volunteer to see if the charges are legitimate. We get the types of cases where there’s a question, and we have to investigate whether or not there is an appropriate home setting for the child.”
While there are no qualifications, such as prior experience, to meet in order to become a CASA volunteer, those interested will have to go through a screening process that includes a background check, an interview and provision of references.
Volunteers also go through 30 hours of training and five hours of court observations, and once completed and working as volunteers, they must complete an additional 12 hours of continued education each year.
“It’s a big commitment,” Dalton said, “and you deal with tough issues. The training and court observations help us see if the applicants can handle it.”
During the 30 hours of training, conducted by Dalton and other volunteer coordinators, volunteers learn how to be objective in their investigations. While much of the investigation is based on opinion, Dalton explained that volunteers are taught to investigate, find facts and write reports free of preconceived notions and judgments.  In addition, volunteers must also be trained to understand that they are temporary in a child’s life, serving only to help that child and that family along during that point in their lives.
For more information about CASA or to apply for the training sessions, please call Dalton at 461-3500, email her at [email protected] or visit CASA’s website at www.casatn.org.