A shortage of volunteers means not every neglected child has an advocate to stand up for them on their day in court. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the 20th Judicial District is putting the word out that volunteers are needed to become trained to look out for a child’s best interest when their case goes to trial.

Tess Fletcher is executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, which is comprised of the Central Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center and CASA of the 20th Judicial District.

"We need advocates," Fletcher said. "We’re not serving 100 percent of our kids. In the district we’re serving 70 to 75 percent, but in Faulkner County we’re serving about 60 percent."

Children who have been removed from their home because of abuse or neglect qualify for an advocate, who will serve as their voice in court. CASAs are trained to spend time gathering information on the case, getting to know the child and his/her family, and coming to a conclusion about what would be in the best interest of the child. They can make recommendations to the judge that can positively impact the child’s results.

Anyone interested in volunteering should call the office at 501-328-3347. Volunteers will start by going through a background check, an interview, 30 hours of training and three hours of court observation.

Fletcher said, "We want quality over quantity. We want people who are here because they are truly passionate about helping children. It requires a big commitment from somebody, because it’s a volunteer role, but there’s a lot of policies and procedures they have to adhere to, and we’re asking for at least a year."

Elizabeth Webster, advocate supervisor at CASA, explained parents have 12 months to rectify the situation that caused the child to be removed from the home. However, if significant progress has been made at the 12-month mark, the judge can extend the time, she said.

"We ask that advocates stay on a case and see it through. We don’t want to be another adult in a child’s life that walks away and lets them down," she said.

Fletcher said the nonprofit organization is hoping to recruit some volunteers who would enjoy working with older children. Unfortunately, she said, older children who are not returned to their parents’ care are at risk of ending up homeless when they reach age 18.

Webster explained foster children may choose to remain in the system until age 21 and apply for grants for college. The Department of Human Services will provide a monthly budget of spending money for those who choose to do so, allowing them to function like any other college student.

She said, "A low percentage of foster children graduate high school. I think an advocate can play a big role in helping our kids make the best decision, because they are a form of support."

CASA has one student in college now, Webster said.

"That’s the first step in breaking the cycle," she said. "We have so many kids on our case load that their parents were on our caseload."

Fletcher added, "We want to diversify our advocate base to include advocate who want to work with older children. The National CASA Association gave us a grant to work with older youth."

At the moment, though, without enough volunteers to go around, CASA has to place its priority on cases where the child has been physically or sexually abused.

"We can’t carry 100 percent," said Webster. "Every child deserves to have someone stand up for them, fighting for them and looking out for their best interest. We should not have to pick and choose our cases."

(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson may be reached at 501-505-1236 or rachel.dickerson@thecabin.net)