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For 25 years, CASA speaks up for abused, neglected children

Posted September 16

— After her mother died in 1997, Keshala Jackson discovered she had once attended an orientation session for the Capital Area Court-Appointed Special Advocate Association, inspiring Jackson to do the same. On a 2013 drive home from work, Brent St. Blanc heard a radio public service announcement for the association.

"You have to kind of know me to realize that was a pretty significant event for me to even have heard that, because advertising just doesn't work on me, either radio or TV," St. Blanc said. "I just tune it out."

There is no single reason people volunteer to be a court-appointed special advocate. But, because so many have, the Baton Rouge nonprofit has been able to be a voice for neglected and abused children.

The association assigned cases to its first two volunteers in September 1992. A quarter-century later, it has become well-known for its assistance to East Baton Rouge Parish children who've been removed from their homes for their protection. Liz Betz, director for all but the first few months of the association's history, can't identify when the organization turned the corner.

"I was always just so aware of how much needed to be done, so there weren't many moments to say, 'Ah, we can rest on our laurels for a minute,' " Betz said. "One of the goals that was made clear to me when I was hired was this organization would have a CASA volunteer for every child who needed one, and that didn't happen until 2009."

Jackson and St. Blanc are two of 107 volunteers who serve 206 children. They took 32 hours of training and committed to at least one year if the case of the child they're assigned lasts that long. Neither had personal experience with children in foster care.

"I realized then it was not an easy volunteer activity but something that I wanted to take on," St. Blanc said. "I'd read a book about 9/11, and something struck me. The author commented that they were near ground zero, and here's all these throngs of people running out of the Twin Towers, and he noticed the firemen running in. Here was somebody in a disaster scenario where everybody's running away, and yet here was somebody running in.

"That struck me as kind of how I see to some extent the CASA. These are difficult, horrible situations that we don't even want to think about sometimes. It just seemed like an opportunity to run toward the fire."

Volunteers speak on behalf of the child as courts decide when or if the child can return to his or her family. Outside of court, volunteers deal with parents, foster parents, state Department of Children and Family Services case workers, group homes, counselors, teachers, psychologists and attorneys.

The children are victims of neglect or abuse — drug, physical or sexual — often at the hands of relatives before the state steps in and relocates them to group homes or foster families.

The children don't always agree with the volunteer.

"If you look at a child that wants to be with their family, and if the parent is not doing what they need to do to have them back, you have to sit in court and say they should not go back, and that child is sitting there (saying), 'Why would you say that?' " Jackson said. "You have to explain to them that 'This is what's in your best interest right now. I know it's not what you want, but you can't go home right now.' "

"In a lot of cases, it's trying to pick between bad, worse and awful," St. Blanc said. "That bond of a child to his parents is unbelievably strong, even in terrible situations, because the kid doesn't know any differently. That's reality. That's what they grew up with. That's normal."

If the case lasts more than a year, many volunteers choose to stay on until it is resolved when children are placed back with their parents, with another relative, adopted or reach adulthood. The organization always needs new volunteers, Betz said, to replace those who move or opt not to take new cases.

Successful conclusions are the best moments for volunteers. There are other victories.

St. Blanc recalls telling a judge that the court needed to quit sticking with a plan that wasn't making progress. The judge agreed and ordered the parties to come up with something new.

"That was when I first felt I truly was an advocate," St. Blanc said. "That's what I was there for, and that's what CASA was there for, to stand up and say, 'Hang on, system. We're accepting something that's not good here.' For me, after coming out of that court hearing, I felt like I had finally lived up to the title of an advocate, not just a volunteer."

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