CASA makes a difference in young lives

Thursday, October 11, 2012
Gayle Cotten and Beth Christopher accepted the challenge to support area children by training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate, and consider their experience invaluable. A new training session begins next week. (T-G photo by Jim Davis)

"When I saw it in the paper, I said, 'Oh. I'm too old, they don't want retired people,'" said Gayle Cotten, remembering the notice recruiting volunteers for Court Appointed Special Advocate training. "Of course, that's one thing they are looking for, because we have a little more time."

Each week her vision was drawn to the notice, and each week she thought, "That sounds really neat, but not for me," she said.

Change of mind

The internal argument continued for two or three months until she gave in. "There was just something there. It just amazed me that somebody like me could actually do something for a child."

Volunteers advocate for children who have come to the attention of juvenile courts. They visit with parents, children, foster families, legal representatives and other parties to develop a plan that is in the best interest of the child. After providing classroom training, the staff of CASA Works, Inc. supervises and assists volunteers throughout the proceedings.

"There are a variety of things that bring people to be a volunteer -- something has touched their hearts or lives in the past -- and they feel like they have something to offer to a child," said Lynne Farrar, CASA director.

'Place in my heart'

Cotten, retired after 40 years as a lab director in the Nashville and St. Louis areas, had dealt with some child abuse cases through the laboratory work her team performed. "These children already had a place in my heart."

For Beth Christopher, a semi-retired ESL teacher from Marshall County, she had seen the children in her own school.

"In the classroom you will always find those children that are not very well-dressed, whose shoes don't fit."

Following policy, she could raise a flag of concern with school administrators -- but other than passing the information, "I never knew what to do."

"For me the value of CASA is that they show you how you can help -- in very specific ways."

Deep involvement

It's not about buying a pair of shoes. The advocate concept means working with the alphabet soup of agencies which enter a child's life when a family comes to the attention of the court system.

"I had a child wearing his father's ratty old sneakers. I thought, "Doesn't anybody see this?" Most people wish to help, thinks Christopher, but don't know where to start. "What do you do? Where do you go?"

There are people who don't get involved, but for those who wish to do something, "I think CASA is the most valuable thing you can do," said Christopher.

"Somehow we have to get these children's stories to the court so better decisions may be made for the families," said Farrar. "It's a bigger picture than shoes or clothes."

It is a picture of safety and protection. And time.

Time and patience

Training takes place over 10 weeks, a total of 35 hours, followed by court observation. Interestingly enough, agree Christopher and Gayle, they learned more about what not to do.

As for taking charge in their new roles, "Lynne told me I could address the judge. He listened to me. It was remarkable," said Christopher.

"And we changed the course of the child's life," agreed Farrar.

Each of the ladies have been volunteering for a year now. Each works with two families, visiting an average of once a month.

"Some children never get a break," said Christopher.

Although born into a seemingly never-ending series of bad situations, CASA volunteers can help break the cycle.

"I was thinking, if I could do something along the way to help change it, that would be fantastic," Christopher said.

About CASA Works

CASA Works Inc. serves Bedford, Coffee, and Franklin Counties. Training prepares volunteers by providing instruction in the areas of child development, child abuse and neglect; the court and social service systems; writing court reports; testifying and mediation skills. The training program is approximately 35-40 hours of classroom instruction and two to four hours of court observation. For more information, call CASA Works Inc. at (931) 639-9750.