Child advocates celebrate 'harvest of hope'

No matter how deteriorated the family situation, a child removed from home for abuse or neglect will nearly always tell the courts he wants to return home.

A court-appointed special advocate or CASA, a trained volunteer, can provide a judge an informed, clear picture of that home situation.

"We speak for the child," said Joan T. McGill, 63, a CASA volunteer for 10 years. "We do the research and back it up. We are there for the child and can help others make a decision that is in the child's best interest."

In the decade since Baltimore County established CASA, "the courts have really come to respect our opinion," McGill said.

Beverly Egan, 69, another longtime advocate, said, "If we can't help our children, what good are we?"

CASA celebrates its mentors, who now number about 90, at its 10th annual fundraiser Thursday evening. McGill and Egan are again co-chairing the event, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at Oregon Ridge Lodge in Cockeysville. Harvest of Hope for Children may raise about $50,000 for CASA programs, including training and educational materials for its volunteers, organizers said.

"We have both gotten really good at fundraising," McGill said, but she added both prefer helping children.

They each had time on their hands 10 years ago and a willingness to work for children, when they first joined CASA. Advocates take 30 hours of training initially and more classes as their mentoring continues. They work closely with a supervisor, who can advise them on the best avenues to find help for a child. The advocates not only go to court, but they will mentor at a child's school.

About 650 children in the county have been removed from their family home, most often for neglect or abuse.

"You think Baltimore County, middle-income, educated people and you don't think about child neglect," Egan said. "But at any given time, there are hundreds of children in the system."

Social workers, schools and foster placements change, but a CASA may be the one constant in the life of a child in crisis, McGill said. She often takes the child out to lunch or a movie, just to talk, she said. Even after aging out of the system, those grown children have kept in touch.

Egan has mentored several children and has found building a trusting relationship is essential. She promises her charges that she is only a phone call away.

"They learn quickly that I am not going to disappear," she said. "These kids are savvy. They will ask why we do this for no pay. You have to build trust."

For McGill, the motivation is "what can I do to make a difference for this child and how can I find him or her a permanent home?"

Often that home will be with caring foster parents, who ultimately adopt a child placed with them. Egan attended a formal adoption last week of two siblings she had mentored.

"I have had great payback from volunteering," Egan said. "I know that I have played a unique part in children's lives."

Tickets for Harvest of Hope for Children are $75 in advance or $80 at the door, 13401 Beaver Dam Road. Information: casabaltco.org or 410-825-0515.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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