CASA gives hope to abused kids

News-DemocratSeptember 22, 2011 

They spend hours in a courtroom. They interview family, friends, and neighbors and talk to children during the worst times of their lives about things most people couldn't fathom happening to a child.

Patti Ovies, 74, of Swansea and Carol Peterson, 72, of Belleville, have spent the last six years of their retirement as voices speaking up for neglected and abused children in St. Clair County. They don't get paid for the hours they spend on cases.

Their only pay is the reward of seeing children get out of a bad situation to find a happier, better place to live and grow up.

"When you hear the need in this county, you cannot not do it," Peterson said. "It's all about the kids and when you know what they've been through, you can't turn it down."

Ovies and Peterson are Court-Appointed Special Advocates. As St. Clair/Monroe County CASA volunteers, they provide advocacy services to abused and neglected children as they make their way through an often complicated and frightening court system. The women have been friends for 35 years and work cases together.

There are about 100 CASA volunteers and the organization needs at least 25 more, according to Donna Lindsey, 64, director of volunteer coordinators at CASA.

"I'd love to have at least 100 more volunteers," Lindsey said.

There are 365 children in the court system who could use a CASA volunteer to advocate for their best interest in court.

"For some reason since January, there has been a lot more cases than usual," Lindsey said. "There has been more abuse than usual and quite a bit of neglect."

Although Lindsey works for CASA in an administrative role, she still takes on cases because there just aren't enough volunteers to go around.

"I have two drawers full of cases," she said. "I'm not really supposed to take them, but I can't leave them alone. I can't leave those children alone."

Advocates talk to the children who have often lived through unbelievable neglect and abuse. Truly horrible cases stick in their minds and are the ones they will never forget. Ovies recalls a case that involved two little girls who had been put in a cardboard box and adults in the home stabbed the box with knives over and over again.

"What those poor girls endured was unbelievable," she said. "They still can't talk about it."

A sexually abused toddler who had contracted gonorrhea is the case that haunts Lindsey.

"I went over there to talk to them and that little girl wouldn't say a word to me, but she just kept looking at me, watching me, like she wanted to tell me something," Lindsey said. "I went back over there the next day and the house was empty. The family had left and we never found her. I think about that little girl a lot."

Peterson remembers a case involving a 6-year-old girl whose mother forced the child to have sex with the mother's boyfriend.

"One mother wanted us removed from the case because we had learned too much," Peterson said. "The judge told her no because we were the only things that had stayed the same in those kids' lives for years."

The women often depend on each other, especially when cases are particularly tough or things don't go quite they way the expected in the courtroom.

"We spend a lot of time talking about things with each other," Ovies said. "Sometimes, when it's a tough case or a disappointing day in court, that's when it's nice to have a partner because we can talk and console each other and go home and have ice cream."

"We have a lot of ice cream," Peterson said with a chuckle.

They interview the parents, teachers, law enforcement officers, doctors, neighbors, foster parents and relatives to find out exactly what kind of life the child has had. They sit in on visitations between a child removed from his or her home and the parent to assess the parent-child relationship.

Then, they take everything they have learned, write a report, testify in family court about their findings and make recommendations to the judge based on what they have learned. On average, volunteers can spend at least 10 to 12 hours a month on each case they are assigned. Most of the time investment happens at the beginning of a case, when they are investigating and interviewing everyone who is part of the child's life.

"We are treated with a lot of respect by the court," Peterson said. "The judges tell us we are their eyes and ears into the homes. We just report the facts and we report everything. The more information we have, the more it helps the judge make the right decision. We can make recommendations to the judge, he doesn't have to take our recommendations but often he does."

When the pair first became CASA volunteers, courtrooms and the law were quite foreign to both of them.

"When you are a brand-new CASA volunteer, the courtroom is a little intimidating," Ovies said. "But, as time goes on they help you relax, the attorneys do. They help you along and that took a lot of fear out of it for me."

Cases can last for years. A current case has lasted for five years and is finally in the last stage. The children involved will have new adoptive families.

"That will be a good day in court," Ovies said. "It can be hard not to get attached to these kids. Some of them are so precious you just want to take them home and protect them."

It takes a special kind of person to be a CASA volunteer.

"They have to have the right personality and be able to not only work with the kids, but with all the professionals too," Lindsey said. "Sometimes we have to turn people away."

Volunteers are fingerprinted and must go through a thorough background check before they start working with children.

Patience is a virtue for CASA volunteers.

"The law works slowly and that can be frustrating but sometimes, it has to," Peterson said.

And learning to put aside opinions and snap judgments is also an important quality for a volunteer to possess.

"Be nonjudgmental," Ovies said. "I had to harness that in myself. I'd read the reports about what had happened to these children and immediately think, `Oh, you ...' about the parents. But then you meet them and you sometimes realize they aren't horrible people; they are people who often grew up not knowing any other way."

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