The Central Virginian

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In the best interest of the child

Posted on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 9:00 am

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, Louisa County had 288 reports of child abuse and neglect and of those, half were found to be valid in 2013. Currently 24 children are in foster care locally.

Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is recruiting volunteers in Louisa County to assist in these cases assigned by the courts and judge. Volunteers would work with one child or family group at a time and focus exclusively on the child’s best interest.

That stands in contrast to the other small army of professionals who are involved in these cases such as social workers, guardian ad litem’s and attorneys who have multiple cases.  CASA volunteers have the opportunity to gain a broader view of a child’s circumstances and report that information to the court.

So who are the children CASA serves? They are newborns to age 18 and, according to Alicia Lenahan, President of Piedmont CASA in Charlottesville, they tend to be about equal between boys and girls.

“The sad fact is that they all are victims of abuse and neglect,” Lenahan said. “That is why they have come to the attention of the department of social services and the court, but it is important to know that in spite of their parent’s flaws and in spite of mom and dad’s inability or unwillingness to keep them safe, 99.999 percent of our parents love their children and their children love them back.”

Lenahan reminds people that “when you do something for a child, you do something to a child.”

During an information session held at the Louisa County Public Library on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Lenahan spoke with potential volunteers about what a volunteer does for these children and their families.

“Basically, you become the eyes and ears for the judge,” Lenahan said.

Volunteers conduct an investigation and everything that entails. They speak to anyone who has relevant information about the child and review all records pertaining to the child such as medical, education and therapeutic files.

Lenahan said that volunteers gather information and observe the child in a variety of settings such as visiting with their parents, and depending on their age, observing them in daycare, elementary school or an after school setting.

“You get the chance to be the fly on the wall,” Lenahan said.

The judge has a much deeper understanding of how a child is doing when the CASA volunteer sends in a report. According to Lenahan, these children need a variety of services either because their needs have not been met up to that point, and if the court needs to step in and order the services, it is the job of the CASA volunteer to make sure that happens.

“A CASA volunteer may be the most consistent person in the life of a child during this very difficult chapter,” Lenahan said.

She told the group that social workers, depending on their role, come and go. Foster parents come and go, parents, depending on their circumstances, may be involved more or less, and attorneys tend not to be visible.

“At the end of the day, you may be the last man standing and when you are sitting around a table with a host of professionals who have picked this file up from someone else,” Lenahan said. “You will know more about that child and their case than anyone else in the room and you provide consistency.”

To read the entire story, see the Jan. 30 edition of The Central Virginian.