TERRE HAUTE —
Giving children a voice to advocate for them in court cases takes a trained adult who wants what is best for the child in need of services.
That person — known as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate — can make the difference in how a family reunites and how a child flourishes after parenting changes and lifestyle choices are established to make the best home for the child, according to those who take part in the group called CASA.
“It gives children a voice that nobody’s employed,” said Becki Wiram as she met recently with others interested in volunteering for the program. “It’s not a lawyer’s voice. It’s not a social worker’s voice. I’m the voice for the kids.”
Children as young as infants through age 17 can be assigned an advocate. Indiana law requires the juvenile court to appoint either a guardian ad litem or a trained advocate for all Child in Need of Services, or CHINS, cases. The guardians and volunteers have full-party status in child welfare cases, which means they have the right to attend hearings, present information to the court, obtain records and make recommendations and requests to the court on behalf of their child.
The CASA program in Vigo County is seeking more adult volunteers, and CASA programs in other Wabash Valley communities also need volunteers who can give a few hours each month.
Wiram said she became involved in CASA after she got into volunteering at a women’s shelter in Terre Haute.
“I found out I had a heart for children,” Wiram said. “The kids loved being at the shelter because they had all those people caring for them. They had food. They were loved. It wasn’t like at home.”
Then, Wiram took a job as a school bus driver, picking up children in an economically disadvantaged area of the city. She became a stable and trusted adult in the lives of many of those children, as well.
“I didn’t know anything about CASA until I moved here and read about it in a newspaper article,” Wiram said. “I cut the article out and kept it, and it took me about a year to come here and get involved.”
She had worked in accounting in the past, she said, and had no child advocacy training before she volunteer. But she enjoyed the 30 hours of initial training as an advocate, and she now attends a national conference annually to learn more about how she can help youths.
She started with one case — a case can represent one child or multiple children in a family. She recently had two cases, with one child getting adopted to a foster family and another being reunited with its father.
“I just assess the situation,” Wiram said of her first interactions on a case. “The first thing I look for in a home is physical safety. And then I look at who is the better parent for this child.”
She typically reviews school and medical records, talks to friends of the family and relatives, then writes reports for the court based on her monthly visit with the child. She also appears at the court hearings for the child.
Volunteer Ginger Bedford said the CASA experience is worth the training that goes into it. She has been an advocate for the past four years and now handles five cases that cover nine children from age infant through 16.
“When my husband passed away, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my time, so I became a CASA,” Bedford said.
While having so many cases is not typical for an advocate, Bedford said she enjoys working with the families where her assigned children live, and she tries to make a positive difference. For one family, she made sure that the children received Christmas presents by finding a local company whose workers “adopted” the family for the holidays.
“I guess the reward is when you walk into a home or a foster home, and the kids come up and give you a hug,” Bedford said. “You know you are a stable thing in their life, and sometimes you are the only stable thing in their life.”
While Child in Need of Services cases are planned to last only 18 months, some cases have gone longer as a family goes through multiple issues or delays occur. Bedford says she stays in contact with the family, giving encouragement and positive feedback where needed.
“It’s a good way to make a difference,” she said. “Our mantra is, ‘I’m a CASA. I’m for the child.’ And someone has to be.”
During a 10-month period, she said she logged 1,100 miles making visits — sometimes traveling to the Indianapolis area to meet with a child who had been placed with an out-of-county foster home. There is some assistance, such as gasoline cards donated by local merchants, that takes the edge off such travel expenses.
Bedford, who is a member at Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church and recently returned from a mission trip to help others, said that she is willing to meet with community groups who want to learn more about the CASA process, in hopes of gaining more volunteers.
Vigo County currently has 114 active CASA volunteers, said Stephanie Bachelor, the local volunteer coordinator. About 400 children have an advocate, and another 54 children are on the waiting list to receive one.
Volunteers must go through a training class and have a criminal background check. The next training class for volunteers begins Aug. 19 and will take 30 hours during a three-week period.
Statewide statistics for the Indiana CASA program shows that in 2012, more than 330,000 hours were given by 3,466 trained volunteers who advocated for 18,699 children in Indiana courts. More than 900 new volunteers were recruited and trained last year, but more are still needed.
At the beginning of 2012, there were 2,350 children waiting for a CASA to be assigned to them. At the beginning of 2013, there were 2,344 children waiting for a CASA volunteer.
Lea Thomas, who leads the CASA program in Clay County, said Monday that 48 children are receiving services now. There are eight active CASA volunteers and two in training, Thomas said, but she herself is also representing 13 children in their cases.
Parke County has 19 children in the CASA system, and that county also needs volunteers.
Greene County averages 79 children as CHINS cases and has a need for at least five more volunteers.
Putnam County averages 57 children in the CASA system and needs at least 10 more volunteers.
There is not a CASA system in Sullivan or Vermillion counties. Of Indiana’s 92 counties, 78 have CASA programs.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Court Appointed Special Advocates program can go online to www.in.gov/judiciary/galcasa.
To find out more about volunteering for CASA:
• In Vigo County, call 812-231-5658.
• In Parke County, call 765-401-0285.
• In Putnam County, call 765-653-9342.
• In Greene County, call 812-384-2036.
• In Clay County, call 812-448-9035.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@
tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.