By A.J. Etherington
The Courier 

Special Advocates Needed in Glasgow, Valley County

 


Right now in Valley County, there are 35 victims of child neglect and abuse waiting for a court appointed special advocate (CASA) to be assigned to their ongoing case. This total does not include the cases which have already been assigned advocates. There are currently only four CASA volunteers for all of Valley County. These same volunteers serviced over 45 cases of child neglect and abuse last year alone, according to Executive Director of CASA of Hill County, Inc., Mark Douglass,

Douglass oversees and handles CASA volunteers and cases in northeastern Montana. Given the shortage of volunteers, he says the question of whether CASA is truly serving victims of child abuse and neglect remains an open one.

In Valley County, CASAs receive the court title of “Guardian ad Litem” Latin for guardian for the case, and they serve the child in the case through meeting with attorneys, mental health professionals and teachers in order to advocate for the child and ensure that the court is taking the best course of action for them. Due to the CASA’s unique responsibility, they are given broad access to the case, and are the most prominent non-professional or non-attorney advocate in the courtroom, according to Douglass.


He emphasized the role played by CASA volunteers, especially in cases where attorneys and therapists are sometimes overloaded with 30 or more child abuse cases, in working behind the scenes with lighter caseloads to provide the best outcome for the child: “I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed CASAs ask the ‘outsider’ question of a group and gotten new answers which wouldn’t have been possible with the providers talking among themselves.”

In light of recent events, Douglass provided supplementary materials prior to his interview with the Courier containing the following statement: “I cannot speak to the role the Valley County victim’s and witness’s advocate played in this case [referring to the Blake case], and, being outside immediate knowledge of the facts, I cannot offer any clarification on what might or might not have happened in the courtroom […]. CASA focuses solely on abuse and neglect cases, and specifically on the hearings and court process of those cases.” Douglass added that criminal cases involving children do not always receive a CASA appointee. The Glasgow Police Department’s Victim Witness Specialist Renee Jones could not be reached for comment at press time.

Douglass emphasized that CASAs are not professionals, but members of the community serving as the representatives in the case for how the community feels children should be treated. “They represent the wisdom of the community present in the courtroom when decisions are made about the community’s most valuable resource, its children,” said Douglass.


In order for a case to be assigned a CASA, it must be a child and neglect case reported to the Child and Abuse toll-free hotline at 866-820-5437 where the case is taken into the Child and Family Services Centralized Intake and handled through the necessary process. Douglass commented that he is often asked, in his line of work, what people should do if they suspect abuse, and his answer is almost always to call the hotline. “If it seems unusual to a person in the community then they should call, because the more information we have the better decisions we can make for the child... The community should have an interest in every child and how they grow-up.”

To become a CASA volunteer Douglass shared the basic requirements; you must be 21 years of age, have no violent or child-centered criminal history, you must undergo a vetting process and comprehensive background investigation, and you must complete a 30 hour pre-service course focusing on family dynamics, and handling child abuse cases. Douglass also said that they had just begun a new flex CASA course this week and can enroll new volunteers in the class over the next few weeks if people are interested. If you wish to volunteer as a CASA you can email Mark Douglass at casa@hrdc4.org, call the CASA office at 406-265-6743 or call Douglass’ cell at 406-399-4519.


 

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