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Carroll children's advocates face volunteer deficit

Carroll children's advocates face volunteer deficit
The increase in children in the foster care system has left Voices for Children of Carroll County starved for volunteers. (Courtesy Photo)

When a child enters Carroll County’s court system, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) can be a constant presence in their life that advocates for their interests to the court. Many community members are unaware that this role exists.

This is a problem for the program, as the number of children in the system has steadily increased and the need for volunteers has grown.

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“When I first came on board, we had about 30 kids,” said Case Supervisor Barbra Diaz, “Our numbers are extremely high in Carroll County right now. We have 42 kids that we’re currently serving and 19 on the wait list.”

Between January 2017 and December 2017, the number of children in Carroll County’s foster case system rose from 54 children to 69 children, Patrick Seidl, Development & Communications coordinator for Maryland CASA, wrote in an email to the Times.

“Right now it’s just about awareness,” Diaz said. “We just need people to know that this need exists.”

The organization sees ups and downs in the number of cases, but the need is notably high right now.

“The opioid epidemic right now is a huge factor,” Diaz said. “It’s straining a lot of our resources, both here and in the Department of Social Services.”

According to statistics gathered by nonprofit research organization Child Trends, 27 percent of children who entered the Maryland foster care system in 2015 entered because of parental substance abuse.

Voices for Children of Carroll County is the CASA organization in Carroll, one of 15 programs in the state. They fall under the umbrella of the Mental Health Association of Frederick County and often share resources.

CASAs are volunteers who go through five weeks of training that combines online work and hands-on, in-person work. They must be at least 21 years old and pass a background check.

No specific skills needed to begin training.

“Just have a passion to advocate for these kids and be committed to the length of the case. And be open and receptive and non-judgmental and objective,” Diaz said.

The time commitment required can vary.

Volunteers are asked to commit at least 10 hours per month, though many begin to dedicate well more than that once they become involved with the child.

“It depends on [the individual’s] situation. Some of our volunteers are retired [and] have a lot of free time, and some of our volunteers are full-time employees so this is limited time,” Diaz said.

A volunteer who successfully completes the training is also asked to commit to staying in the program for at least one year. Ideally, they would stay onboard for the length of the case, which last an average of three years.

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“With a lot of our kiddos in the system, they’ve been through a lot of trauma, they’ve had a lot of people come and go in their lives,” Diaz said. We don’t want to create any more trauma for them by having a volunteer be part of their lives and then ultimately disappear.”

Most CASAs meet with their child every other week and then spend time outside that researching the larger situation by meeting with with his or her school, therapist, caregiver and others.

The goal is to present an objective report for the Family Magistrate who can then issue court orders.

“We are the eyes and ears of the court,” Diaz summarized.

The two most recent Carroll volunteers were sworn-in in late January and are assigned to cases. One more is currently in training and will graduate this month.

The newest Carroll CASAs are both from the county and are involved in continued education. Grace Diffendal, 22, studies criminal justice at Carroll Community College and Kelsey Robinson, 23, is pursuing a masters in Social Work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, according to a news release from Maryland CASA.

A CASA can have a positive impact on a child’s long-term development, which is why they are hoping to find more volunteers and take children off the wait list.

“With the help of our organization, these children and youth are more likely to receive the services they need while in care, more likely to perform better in school, [and] less likely to re-enter the foster care system,” Seidl wrote.

“Ultimately, I would like to have a reserve of volunteers sitting waiting for cases rather than kids waiting for CASA’s,” Diaz said. “Carroll County, I think, when they know that there’s a need out there, they generally step forward.”

To become a CASA volunteer with Voices for Children of Carroll County or to learn more, contact 410-840-2495 or visit marylandcasa.org/programs/carroll-county/ or fcmha.org and look under “How We Help.”

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