Sleeping alone in the back of a U-Haul truck. Hiding in fear during regular visits from law enforcement officers. Tiptoeing over drug paraphernalia, trying not to wake anyone. Nursing broken bones and abrasions.
These are heartbreaking scenarios that Henrico CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) has seen play out behind closed doors for children in our community.
Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures were enacted during a public health crisis to keep communities safer during the pandemic. The opposite was true for children experiencing abuse and neglect. They were isolated at home, unseen, trying to survive a nightmare of abuse and neglect.
Across our community, there are parents and caregivers struggling to care for their children. They may be working multiple jobs, grappling with substance use disorders, or living with mental health challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues by adding potential health anxiety, job loss, and school closures. Sadly, stress like this is a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.
In Virginia, a child is abused or neglected every eighty-one minutes. This abuse and neglect leads to a child’s death every thirteen days. Henrico CASA is intervening to help end this abuse, one child at a time.
Since 1994, Henrico CASA has served 3,750 children – children who needed an advocate in court to ensure their safety and security. CASA is able to serve so many children because of the more than one hundred volunteers who dedicate a combined total of 10,000 hours of time annually to ensure safe and healthy homes for local children.
“CASA volunteers support children who have been abused and/or neglected during an uncertain time. They are a consistent presence and speak up for the child’s best interests in court and in the community,” says Jeannine Panzera, executive director of Henrico CASA.
Volunteers come from all walks of life and a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. Their commonality is a desire to stand up for children who cannot speak up for themselves. Advocates participate in forty hours of pre-service training where they learn about the court process, the social service system, family dynamics of domestic violence, and the special needs of children with adverse childhood experiences.
Once training is complete, volunteers are sworn in as official agents of the court and are then appointed to advocate for a specific child or sibling group. They get to know the child on an individual level so they can make sure the physical, emotional, and educational needs of the child can be met. Volunteers also get to know the important people in a child’s life to help make sure the child is living in a safe, stable home and has a support system. Most importantly, CASA volunteers convey their observations in written reports to the court to ensure the best possible decision is made for the children’s current and future well-being.
A CASA volunteer’s involvement with children ends when their court case closes. Last year, 100 percent of the children served by CASA had received appropriate treatment and remedial services, and no child re-experienced abuse or neglect. CASA has ensured children are in safe homes and have received the services and connections needed for a brighter future.
“At Henrico CASA, we always hope for the day when CASA is no longer needed because all children are growing up safe, secure, and supported by their families,” said Panzera. “Until then, we will continue to seek more members of the community to meet the growing demand so we can provide a CASA volunteer for every child who needs one.”