Typically at this time of year, Lake Country CASA is gearing up for a holiday tradition, the CASA Cookie Walk. The annual fundraiser has been canceled this year, due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements and in order to keep CASA’s children, and the many generous volunteers and community members who support CASA’s kids through their contributions to the Cookie Walk, as safe as possible.
Many things have changed due to or have been impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, the pandemic did not stop child abuse. While the number of cases referred to Lake Country Court-Appointed Special Advocates did slow a bit at the beginning of the pandemic (due in part to the temporary closure of courts who appoint CASAs) and an increase since school has been in session, the caseload has still been steady.
“Child abuse is not something a lot of people like to talk about, but we have children who are experiencing it in our little community,” said Sharla Evans, volunteer coordinator for Lake Country CASA.
In 2018, 109 children were served across Lake Country CASA’s three-county program area. Last year, Lake Country CASA served 138 children; 91 of those children were from Hopkins County, 23 from Rains County and 24 Franklin County.
So far this year, through Nov. 17, Lake Country CASA has served 130 children, 77 from Hopkins County, 30 from Rains County and 23 Franklin County. That’s almost as many already served this year, with nearly 2 weeks in November and all of December left, as during all of 2019.
“Our mission is to advocate for abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes due to physical or sexual abuse or neglect — emotional, mental or medical neglect. As Court Appointed Special Advocates, we advocate for the best interests of these children, age newborn through 18. We serve as their voice with the goal of achieving a safe, permanent living arrangement as quickly as possible — a forever home,” Law said.
While CASA will be unable to offer cookies for donations due to COVID-19, support for the many children Lake Country Court Appointed Special Advocates represent is still very much needed and appreciated, according to CASA Executive Director Gina Law.
Community members can help provide for these children through financial donations, by volunteering their time to train and serve as CASAs, as foster families or through community awareness — another function of the annual Cookie Walk.
Donations in any amount may be mailed to Lake Country CASA at 218 Connally St., Sulphur Springs 75482. These can include memorial donations made any time throughout the year. All donations to CASA are tax deductible as CASA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
All of the children assigned to CASA have been removed from their parents’ homes by Child Protective Services, due to neglect or abuse, often with very few, if any, personal belongings and are placed in kinship or foster homes. Donations to CASA go to help provide these children with the things they need.
“We are thankful for all donations. All donations go to the children, to help us serve the children and meet their needs,” said Sharla Evans. “All one has to do is read the news on a daily basis to see more and more kids are coming to us, whether due to drugs or something other, it seems sometimes daily or weekly. They are brought into this by no fault of their own.”
“CASA is still serving children in the midst of crisis, we may have changed how we go about it. CASA stays on top of things to see the best interest of the children are served,” Evans said.
Currently, Lake Country CASA has about 24 volunteers, who contact the children and people in their lives to make recommendations to the court. The goal is to assign a CASA to each child removed from their parents or guardians by CPS. Some cases involve one child, others involve sibling and family groups.
“At CASA, we do what we can to help children find permanency as soon as its possible, through making recommendations to the court to help the judge make decisions on permanent placement.” Evans said.
That’s another way community members can help, by becoming a trained CASA volunteer, to help reduce case loads for CASAs already dedicating their time and compassion to the children assigned to them.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers we have. The supervisors and staff are the best,” Law said. “Our CASA volunteers are wonderful, dedicated folks committed to helping children. They are fighters. They fight for the children to have a better life — permanency.”
CASAs help alleviate children’s fears of where they will sleep each night, if they will have food to eat or who will be entering their homes.
“To that child, the CASA volunteer IS the constant amidst the chaos. The child may have 2 or 3 CPS caseworkers during the case and several foster homes. We have seen kids that have had to move from home to home, school to school. As CASA, we try to make this not happen,” Law said.
CASA volunteers are specially trained, then serve under the guidance of a CASA supervisor, all working to determine what is in the best interest of each child assigned to CASA.
Before COVID-19, volunteers could be on the road a lot, visiting with children wherever they are placed — with kinship or foster homes — and others in the child’s life to get a full picture of the child’s life and needs, in order to make an informed recommendation as to what the child’s best interests are.
Often, that means visiting children outside of their home county, as often children CASA serves are placed with relatives, wherever they may reside or in other counties across the state where foster homes are available.
That has changed a bit, with CASA training moving online and via Zoom. Visits have changed a little bit, too. A lot more contact is via Facetime and Zoom, or where possible yard and porch, even park visits to allow for social distancing for the safety of the children and all involved. CASA has adapted, working social distancing into child and placement visits.
“Our first priority is the children’s safety, everything else follows. They’ve sacrificed so much already. Most conferences are via Zoom, and safe porch visits. We can’t go in [due to COVID-19]. Our advocates schedule a lot of Zoom and porch visits. We can’t go in; do no harm is imperative,” Law said.
“My hat’s off to our volunteers. They are always wonderful, going above and beyond in this COVID situation,” Evans said. “Volunteers are the heart and soul of the CASA program. We could not exist without our volunteers.”
Any who are interested in becoming a dedicated, passionate CASA volunteer or a foster parent are encouraged to call Lake Country CASA at 903-885-1173. Volunteers will be required to pass a background check in order to serve as a court-appointed representative for children, then complete the online and Zoom learning requirements.
The annual Cookie Walk also typically serves as a way to spread more awareness about the plight of children served by CASA and the organization. CASA’s dedicated volunteers are happy to talk with community members interested in learning more about a program and who they serve, while protecting the children.
CASA also has a volunteer recruiter, Sarah Goggans, who is available to talk with community organizations. Anyone interested in having someone speak at a club or organizational meeting about CASA and the program’s role in the lives of abused and neglected children, may call the Lake Country CASA Office, 903-885-1173 to schedule a presentation via Zoom or in person where it’s safely possible.
Visit the Lake Country CASA Facebook page for updates and general information about upcoming informational meetings.