COLUMBUS – Government officials gathered April 26 at the Ohio Statehouse to honor the more than 2,000 volunteer child advocates across the state who work to preserve the best interest of abused and neglected children in court hearings.
Pickaway Juvenile Court Judge Jan M. Long, Representative Kyle Koehler (R-79), Representative Jeffery S. Rezabek (R-43) and Jennifer Justice with the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services participated in the event honoring CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers.
CASA volunteers facilitate case resolutions by identifying resources available to a child and helping ensure that the child obtains needed services. They are appointed to cases by a juvenile court judge to act as the voice of the children involved, and they monitor and support the children as the court case progresses.
Appointing judges can consider the input of a CASA volunteer before issuing rulings.
“Probably the best message I could deliver is two words, very large print, boldface and capitalized: Thank You,” said Judge Long as he opened the ceremony.
Long works with volunteers from the Pickaway & Hocking County CASA/GAL Program, many of whom were at Tuesday’s event. He said the information they provide is the most valuable input juvenile court judges receive in abuse and neglect cases.
“CASA volunteers play such a vital role in providing that information to us,” he said.
Long also commented on the astounding dedication of CASA volunteers to the children they serve, recalling a case that involved a child who was hospitalized after allegations of sexual abuse in the home. The parents were barred from visiting.
“The [CASA] volunteer stayed in the hospital room, rocking the child to provide comfort,” he said. “Your efforts are not a job; they’re a passion. I know that what you do comes from your commitment to do what is right.”
Long stressed that judges do not like to order children removed from the family home but said, “If our judicial system is one that is designed to truly protect the child, we have to make those decisions, but we can’t make them lightly. We have to have information.”
Koehler and Rezabek presented a House Resolution commemorating CASA Day in Ohio to Cynthia Westwood, Ohio CASA GAL Association board president.
Koehler and Rezabek jointly sponsored the resolution with nine other House members:
- Kristin Boggs (D-18)
- Kevin Boyce (D-25)
- Andrew Brenner (R- 67)
- Tim W. Brown (R-3)
- Hearcel F. Craig district (D-26)
- Stephanie Kunze (R-24)
- Dan Ramos (D-56)
- Scott Ryan (R-71)
- Barbara R. Sears (R-47)
Koehler recalled his days as a youth counselor when he encountered victims of child abuse and neglect, children who hid wound scars under hair cuts or walked home rather than accepting rides so no one would see where they lived.
“As a youth counselor, I did not know CASA was out there to help these kids,” he said, but as a legislator, “I am profoundly encouraged by what I have learned about CASA and the many volunteers. I hope that as we recognize you today that others will begin to understand the sacrifice you make on behalf of children who desperately need a voice in our court system.”
Rezabek, an attorney who himself volunteers as a child advocate, said CASA volunteers are important because their work help restore a child’s trust.
Justice agreed. “Children know that you stand beside them because you care. You have chosen to be their advocate and their friend,” she said.
Justice said CASA volunteers improve the lives of children.
“We repeatedly hear it from the youth themselves, from the courts where there is a CASA program in place, from the [legal community], and our public children services agencies,” she said.
Ohio has done a good job in reducing its number of children in care, Justice said, but she noted that the number has been creeping back up, due, in part, to widespread opiate addiction. She said her agency, in partnership with the Ohio Supreme Court, is trying to secure a federal grant to increase the number and scale of family drug courts, which can divert people into treatment instead of incarceration.
“We know that adults who participate in family drug courts, for the most part, have better outcomes,” Justice said. “It makes sense when you think that these families have the benefit from frequent oversight, clear expectations, and coordinated services.”
The April 26 event kicked off celebrations of CASA Day in Ohio among the 37 local CASA programs and was timed to coincide with National Volunteer Month and National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.
The CASA mission is expanding throughout the state, spurred by a $2 million grant from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2013. The goal the “Expansion Project” is to have 3,000 active volunteers serving 10,000 children for CASA programs in 50 counties by June 2017.
In 2015, 2,009 volunteers served 8,004 children for CASA programs in 44 counties.
This article originally appeared on The Pickaway News Journal