Growing Awareness of Need for Child Advocates

Marion County Circuit Court Judge Michael Aloi swears in a CASA Volunteer

Court Appointed Special Advocate programs operate in many West Virginia counties, serving the victims of child abuse and neglect. As county program directors, board members and volunteers gather in Wheeling this week for an annual meeting, they’ll get to know Tracy Taylor, the new Executive Director of the program’s state umbrella organization. Taylor hopes to foster program stability and expansion.

Because, if they’re lucky, child abuse and neglect victims in West Virginia get their own special advocate: a volunteer, appointed by a judge, to watch over them as they make their way through the confusing – and often scary – court and human services systems. Tracy Taylor says these special advocates  – “CASAs” – can make the difference for a child victim.

“The volunteers we have, they want to be involved in some way to help a child in need.” – Tracy Taylor

But most victims aren’t so lucky. Not every county has a CASA program and those that do don’t have enough volunteers to provide an advocate for each eligible child.

Child abuse and neglect victims face a maze of unfamiliar processes and a sea of unfamiliar adults – all of whom have an important role to play in addressing their situation:

There are law enforcement officers, health and human service workers, therapists, doctors, foster parents and attorneys. As a case winds its way through the system, those adults often come and go. The CASA may be the one constant adult presence in the child’s life.

Taylor says volunteers are not there to bring legal or social work expertise to the situation – but to provide a constant presence for the child and a special perspective to the court.

“You deal with DHHR, both parents’ attorney, guardian ad litem – the attorney appointed for the child, therapist or special assistance offered you get a full understanding of what the situation is and ultimately what you offer to the court and to the judge is a lay opinion of what’s in the best interest of this child.”

Taylor, a native of Fairmont, also volunteered as a CASA for nearly two years while going to school full-time at Fairmont State University. After earning her undergraduate degree, she went on to complete law school and worked in the legal profession for a number of years out of state. She has returned home and is excited to get started on the challenge of stabilizing the West Virginia CASA Association.

The county CASA programs operate independently, within National CASA guidelines. The role of the state organization is to provide technical support and training to the local programs and to help promote CASA across the state.

A big goal is to expand CASA’s reach. Taylor sees large unserved areas in West Virginia and would like to expand.

“We need a program in the southern counties of the state. This is Logan, Mingo, McDowell – high need area – but no program.”

Taylor has ideas for statewide fundraising and wants to establish a fund to provide seed money for expansion into new counties and to provide emergency assistance to existing programs.

Taylor sees another important role – helping the county programs network more effectively to support each other.

“It’s not just the folks down in Jackson County or up in Keyser that are working – you have a whole network of support here to help you with whatever you’re struggling with at your local program.”

Networking more effectively… Taylor sees this week’s statewide conference as a great opportunity to move that goal forward.

*In the interest of full disclosure, reporter Sarah Lowther Hensley has served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate and currently serves on the board of directors of the CASA program in Marion County.