CUMMING — Child advocacy in Forsyth County increased by 17 voices Monday night.
Chief Forsyth County Juvenile Court Judge J. Russell Jackson inducted the incoming class of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Forsyth County volunteers, who will serve as advocates for children involved in the Juvenile Court and foster care system by no fault of their own.
A CASA volunteer interviews the child and any adult in his or her life to learn about the situation and make care recommendations to the judge.
“I’m glad this is something you feel you want to do, and as I have told you, you need to do,” Jackson said to the class, which is the largest in recent years.
Volunteers dig deeper than Division of Family and Children Services case workers to give the judge a more realistic sense of the children’s homes to make the best decision for them.
“You never know the difference you might make in a child’s life,” he said. “You may not know it at the time.”
Case workers change. Foster parents change. Schools change. Often a CASA volunteer and the judge are the only constants in a child’s life as he or she navigates the child welfare system.
Volunteers are inducted twice a year after completing 40 hours of classroom and online training and 10 hours of courtroom observation, where they learn about the child welfare system, the child development process and the courtroom process, among other training values.
They go through an extensive background interview, said Lori Pupp, advocacy director for CASA.
“They can be assigned to up to two cases for an 18-month commitment,” Pupp said. “They are the eyes and ears of the court. They make recommendations about custody, services, goals.”
A main goal of CASA is to keep families together if possible.
“We fill the gaps in the welfare system,” Pupp said.
Often, the CASA is the only person who actually listens to the children or asks what they want, said Janet Walden, executive director of CASA.
“They are so important. And they’re meeting with the biological family and they’re being respectful and not judgmental,” Walden said. “It’s their job to do the reporting and bring the information back to the judge so he can make the best decision.”
With this new class, CASA has 107 volunteers, marking the first time the nonprofit has topped 100.
On any given day since July, numbers of Forsyth children in the foster care system have been in the 80s or 90s, she said. It had previously reached only the 50s or 60s.
CASA serves about 240 children a year.
“It’s incredible work, and it’s not for everybody,” Walden said. “I say it’s like being able to watch a train wreck and not jump in.”