BY JACLYN ROSE –
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of the Ouachita Region is a special organization with a special mission: to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children within the court system. With the belief that every child is entitled to a safe, permanent home, they recruit, train and supervise volunteers to serve as a child’s advocate in court. CASA is a nationwide organization with approximately 77,000 volunteers across the United States, each one dedicated to the children they serve.
CASA of the Ouachita Region is a 501(c)(3) organization that serves every single child in the foster system in Polk and Montgomery Counties. Governed by a Board of Directors comprised of eight members of the local community and managed day to day by the Program Director, Cynthia Martin and the Assistant Director, Renee Hendrix, the organization trains volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children. “When a child is brought into foster care they are given a CASA volunteer who will stay with them until the child has found permanence, either by adoption, or with another family member or by being placed back in their home, after their parents have completed their program. CASA volunteers undergo five background checks and thirty hours of training before they are sworn in by the judge. They then meet with the children regularly, as well as anyone associated with the case: parents, teachers, doctors, foster parents. There is a court order signed by the judge that allows the volunteer to be privy to most private information so that when the time comes for the case to go to court, the volunteer is able to write a report documenting the child and parents’ progress and their recommendation for that child,” explained Martin. “We are the judge’s ‘eyes and ears’.”
CASA volunteers are extremely dedicated to their case and because each volunteer is only given one case they are generally able to spend more time on their case than DHS because their case loads are so overburdened. The volunteer also works closely with the Attorney Ad Litem, the attorney appointed for the child. According to Martin, “our volunteers are a group of very dedicated, big hearted, compassionate individuals who range in age from their 20s to their 80s.”
Martin began her work with CASA by serving as a volunteer in Texas for several years before moving to Arkansas. “I was so excited to find that there was a small CASA agency in Mena and began volunteering,” said Martin. “After the state director was given a grant that created the ability to hire someone, I applied for the job and then was asked to step in as director in 2008.” Martin recently married the love of her life, Randy and has three children and two grandchildren. “This can be a very difficult job but I have seen so many examples of how CASA has made a difference in a child and that makes all the difficult days more than worth it.”
CASA of the Ouachita Region was originally created in 2005 under the umbrella of Healthy Connections until it separated and formed its own 501(c)(3) in 2008. They are funded by state and federal grants but also rely heavily on donations from business and individuals, as well as fundraising. Saturday, May 3, 2014, the Board of Directors for CASA will host their annual Kentucky Derby Fundraiser from 4-7 pm at Spinelli’s Italian Restaurant. This fun event will help meet the needs of the organization. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the CASA office at 812B DeQueen Street, Suite C in Mena. Anyone interested in providing a donation or in volunteering can visit that address or can call the office at 479.243.9277. “We are always, always, always in need of volunteers. I guarantee it will be very rewarding,” Martin said.