With its program held up as a statewide model, Bartow County Court Appointed Special Advocates recently was presented the 2011 Established Program Award of Excellence from Georgia CASA. Local CASA representatives, led by Program Director Ava Lipscomb, accepted the accolade at the Georgia CASA State Conference in Atlanta.
"Since its inception 10 years ago, Bartow County CASA has served as a statewide model for other affiliate CASA programs of Georgia CASA," said Duaine Hathaway, executive director for Georgia CASA, and Jennifer King, program operations director for Georgia CASA, in an email to The Daily Tribune News. "Bartow County CASA has set a high bar through the commitment and quality of its CASA volunteers, the expertise and vast knowledge of its staff, the support, respect, and high expectations of the court, and the ever expanding support from the community. This award is in recognition and support of the ongoing dedication and commitment of its CASA volunteers, staff, board members, court, and community to bringing urgency and individualized attention to needs and wishes of abused and neglected children in Bartow County."
A program of Advocates for Children, Bartow CASA was implemented in 2001 and is now located in the Advocates' Annex at 113 Douglas St. in Cartersville.
"I was up against some very stiff competition," Lipscomb said. "So I was really surprised because there were some programs that were in the running that are older than our program and maybe they're serving a larger percentage of the children than we're serving. We're serving about 86 percent of the children, where some of the ones that were in the running are serving 100 percent of the children.
"It absolutely does [mean a lot to us]. I'm not one to pat myself on the back. I feel like we're just doing what we're supposed to be doing. But obviously the board thinks we're very involved, and I am involved in a lot of different things around the state in an effort to give the best services to children that we can. There's several things that I'm a part of that it's all about making sure that the children are given the best representation, that the laws are affecting them as they should be, that we're giving the best service here in Bartow County that we can. That's just kind of [what] my focus has always been -- we're going to do this because it's the right thing to do."
In 2010, 68 local CASA volunteers were paired with 265 children in state custody to help find them a permanent home. The program has come a long way from its inception, when it served 33 children with 14 volunteers.
"This is more than just going to a soup kitchen and working for a few hours or handing out stuff or ringing a bell or anything like that," Lipscomb said. "The volunteers go through 40 hours of training before they ever get to have a case. That's longer than foster parent training. In [CASA training] 30 hours is [in the] classroom and 10 is spent in courtroom observation. So they've already seen how this works, and what we cover in training is child development, law, family dynamic -- the whole gamut -- how to communicate with other state agencies in our community.
"Then after they go through [that], we do a fingerprint check. We do a background check. We get references. After they've completed all that, then they're sworn in by the court, Judge Velma Tilley, and they actually become officers of the court. [They volunteer] depending on their availability and how involved they want to be. I have some people who do two to three hours a month. I have some people who do 20 or 30 hours a month. It just depends. We try to match what their availability is with the complexities of the case. The court uses us basically to get out there and be their eyes and ears and go see the children, talk to everybody that knows anything about the children."
Along with talking to the children, the volunteers also gather information from individuals surrounding the youth to make an informed recommendation to the judge concerning permanent placement. Some of the people interviewed could include the children's relatives, teachers, therapists, doctors, day care providers and neighbors.
"They write a written report to the judge and all the parties involved and they make recommendations on what they think needs to happen for this child [as far as permanency] whether they need to be returned [to] their parents, whether they need to be adopted," Lipscomb said. "And we stay involved with that child until permanency is reached. Our goal is to make sure that every child has a safe and loving home. We don't have the final say on that. That's up to the judge. But that's our goal -- [it] is to make sure that every child is in a safe and nurturing home."
The next CASA training session for volunteers will start Aug. 23. The nine-week offering will meet every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. To register for the training or to learn more information about the CASA program, call Lisa Keeler or Lipscomb at 770-386-1060.