Do you have a heart for children? If so, consider volunteering for the local Court Appointed Special Advocate organization, better known as CASA of Southeast Mississippi. Volunteers in George and Greene counties are needed.
CASA of Southeast Mississippi serves children in the court system who are victims of abuse or neglect. Its area encompasses Jackson, George, and Greene counties. At the end of January, statistics from CASA of Southeast Mississippi showed 100 CASA volunteers served 119 children with 240 donated hours of service. The total number of children in the custody of Child Protective Services (CPS) in Greene County is 40. There are 75 in George County and 251 in Jackson County.
Cynthia Landrum, a career educator from Lucedale, became a trained CASA volunteer a little more than a year ago and quickly became passionate about her service. “Most CASA volunteers stay with a case from its beginning to its end because it’s important that the child or children involved have a constant. They change foster home locations. They change CPS workers. They need something in their lives that stays the same,” Landrum said.
CASA volunteers can only have three cases at a time. A case consists of a child or children from the same household or court case. For example, multiple siblings would be served by the same CASA volunteer. Landrum currently has two cases, one of which will probably close soon as an adoption is imminent. She will be available then to take two more cases. However, the need for advocates is growing, and Landrum would like to see more volunteers join the cause. “Retired school teachers are good candidates because they have spent a lot of time with children and know how to advocate for children. However, it wouldn’t have to be a former teacher. Anyone with an interest in children makes a good candidate,” Landrum said.
CASA works closely with the court system as they are appointed by a judge. They also work closely with CPS to look out for the best interest of children. Being court-appointed gives the CASA volunteer a license to meet with parents, foster parents, school personnel, or anyone involved in the child’s upbringing. “Getting involved in other peoples’ lives is messy,” Landrum said, “but these little kids don’t have a voice. We are their voices. To be a voice is a big deal because we really can make a difference.”
The organization has 100 volunteers which include Landrum in George County and three others in Greene County. Volunteers in Greene County are Naomi Thomas and Clifton and Pat Busby. The Busbys just recently were assigned their first CASA case. They became interested in the program after their daughter and son-in-law, Judy and Heath Shaw, adopted two boys last year through foster care. The Shaws currently care for a 17-month-old foster girl.
Additional volunteers are needed for George and Greene counties. Volunteers attend court hearings and if testimony reveals a situation where a CASA volunteer is needed, the judge orders one be assigned to the case. In George County, that judge is Youth Court Judge Daryl Hurt. In Greene County, it is Youth Court Judge Cheryl Pierce.
Landrum became interested in the program shortly after her husband, Shawn, was appointed to the CASA Board of Directors. Shawn Landrum is one of two George County citizens who serve on the 16-member board. The other is Judge Mark Maples.
In 1985 Jackson County became the site of the first CASA program in Mississippi when Judge Emily Baker recognized both the need for and the benefits of CASA volunteers in the Youth Court process. In April 2017, Mississippi legislators passed House Bill 1213 authorizing the Youth Court to utilize trained CASA advocates to work on behalf of children in abuse and neglect cases. Today the National CASA Association represents 950 local programs across the country served by more than 58,000 advocate volunteers devoted to child victims who need someone to change each child’s story by standing up for them in court. Nine counties in Mississippi have a CASA program. Primary funding for the local CASA comes from United Way for Jackson and George Counties, grants, and donations. Frances Allsup has been the director since 2006.
CASA uses trained community volunteers, sworn in by the court, to represent the best interests of abused or neglected children active in the juvenile court system. The volunteers investigate the child’s circumstances, provide fact-based information, and make recommendations to the court while becoming a source of support for the child. The advocate provides a voice for the child, ensuring the court, social services, and legal counsel fulfill their obligations to the child in a timely fashion. CASA strives to ensure that each child is placed in a safe, permanent, loving, and nurturing home as soon as possible.
Training takes 10 weeks. Anyone over age 21 who is interested in volunteering can get more information by calling CASA’s main office at 228-762-7370. Interested citizens can also contact Landrum at 251-509-8533 or by email at [email protected]. Beverly Goff serves as advocate supervisor for volunteers in George and Greene counties. She can be reached at [email protected].