Oujournalist’s Blog

The blog of a freelancing journalist in Arizona

Gila River child advocates assist community August 18, 2011

Filed under: Pinal County — Candace Hughes @ 5:30 pm
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Gila River child-advocate grant

helps recruit more volunteers

By Candace S. Hughes

A $25,000 grant from the Gila River Indian Community to the Court Appointed Special Advocate program for children will help recruit more volunteers, a much-needed resource to help children in foster care.

And those volunteers are making important differences in children’s lives.

“Just yesterday we spent some time together and when I first met her she wouldn’t have thought about going to college or even graduating from high school,” said Shannon Watson, a 33-year-old Arizona State University senior.

“I needed to go to the library so we walked around the campus and I showed her everything and got some information on different degree programs. Six months ago this would not have been an idea she would have entertained,” said Watson, an organizational-studies major.

“We’ve talked about rights and privileges and now she sees education as a right and she doesn’t say this isn’t for her any more. She now thinks that college is in her future,” added Watson, who plans to go on for her master’s in business administration and juris doctorate degrees.

Watson said the 15-year-old Native American girl has been an inspiration to her. “She’s not allowing her circumstances to define her and she’s geared toward living a normal life and being able to have her own family.” Watson is an African American who grew up on the south side of Chicago.

“At this point in my life I’m not young and idealistic, but in the course of our interactions I’ve watched her grow and I get more out of it than she does,” said Watson, who doesn’t have children and isn’t married.

The Superior Court program is funded with $450,000 annually from the state Legislature and this money is used for 11 employees who assist the volunteers with court paperwork, said Justine Grabowsky, community outreach specialist.

“We are grateful to the Gila River Indian Community for their deep commitment to helping change the lives of our vulnerable children” said Laurie Laughlin, Maricopa County CASA program manager.

“These funds will go a long way toward providing support to our CASA volunteers in serving abused, neglected and abandoned children, and increase advocacy and volunteer recruitment efforts on behalf of abused and neglected children in Maricopa county,” she added.

“The $25,000 grant will be used for marketing because we have no budget for any type of promotional materials or advertising to recruit new volunteers,” Grabowsky emphasized.

While there are about 350 volunteers now for 600 children in foster care, there are at least 5,000 Maricopa County kids in foster care, Grabowsky said. “We’d like to have enough volunteers to serve at least 2,000,” she added.

“CASA volunteers are assigned by judges, but we don’t have enough. We’d like to provide a CASA for every child who doesn’t have anyone to advocate for them,” she explained.

The 21-year-old program recruits, screens and trains volunteers to work with children and they are the “child’s voice in court.”

CASA’s volunteers performed 15,141 hours of service and drove 143,873 miles in 2005.

Juvenile Court judges appoint CASA volunteers to work with children face to face so that a trusting relationship is built. They assist the court by providing objective information about the child’s best interests as the family works to correct problems that brought the children in to Child Protective Services care.

Qiana Shaw, a 29-year-old Honeywell engineer, serves as a CASA for a 12-year-old girl of Native American and African American ancestry, and said she has advocated for her assigned child to have a more structured environment. While it took more time than she would have liked to find an appropriate home, Shaw, who also is African-American, is happy that the change eventually was made.

During her two years as a CASA volunteer she has accompanied the pre-teen on walks and visits to Castles and Coasters. “I’m another person she can talk to, but I can’t promise that what we discuss will be confidential. After I leave, I take notes on what we talked about,” said Shaw.

Reports by CASA volunteers are used by judges in making decisions on the child’s behalf and she occasionally appears in court or her reports are used.

“It’s benefiting me because I love children and I don’t have any of my own,” she added.

Volunteers receive mileage reimbursement, but there is no salary.

Pinal County seeks advocates

Of the more than 600 Pinal County children in foster care, only 37 have Court Appointed Special Advocates to give them a voice in court.

Twenty-eight volunteers help the 37 children by providing information not supplied by attorneys, natural or foster parents, or the court or school system.

Potential volunteers may call the Pinal County CASA Program at 520-866-7077 for Florence and Apache Junction and 520-866-7710 for Casa Grande.

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