Making a Difference: East Texas CASA serves foster children and works to give a positive future

 

Shelly Smith has a lot of responsibilities as the executive director of East Texas CASA, but she only has one goal – to give children in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties a “positive future.”

“CASA’s goal is to create a positive future for abused and neglected children by recruiting and training highly qualified volunteers to ensure the safety, protection and permanent placement of children,” Smith said. “We want to make a difference in the lives of children by providing an independent voice in the court system.”

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Through the organization, volunteers are appointed by the court as the guardian ad litem for children once they are placed in foster care, and advocate for the best interest of the children in the court system.

“CASA’s become a constant in a foster child’s life where many people are coming and going during a critical time in their lives,” Smith said.

Smith began working with East Texas CASA in 2012 as a member of its Board of Directors. She became the executive director in November 2013.

East Texas CASA served 362 children in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties in 2016. Smith said another 92 children were removed from unsafe environments in 2016, but were not provided a Court Appointed Special Advocate because of the shortage of volunteers.

Volunteers are what make CASA operate, Smith said. The more people volunteer, the more children can be helped.

Smith said a Court Appointed Special Advocate provides a voice for abused and neglected children during court proceedings in order to protect a child’s best interests. The primary goal is to make sure children are placed in a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible, she said.

Becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate is an easy process, Smith said.

“We have a simple application (accessed on our website) and interview process, followed by nationally required background checks and mandatory training. We are also now offering Lunch and Learn sessions in every county for people in our communities to simply come and get more information about what we do, the time involved, and how they can make a difference,” she said.

A CASA volunteer must:

  • Be 21 years of age or older.
  • Successfully pass screening and background check requirements.
  • Successfully complete initial training provided by East Texas CASA.
  • (30 hours of initial training plus three hours of courtroom observation and 12 hours of continuing education)
  • Be able to make a 24-month minimum commitment to a case.
  • (An average of 10-15 hours per month)
  • Be able to keep information confidential and work within established program guidelines.

However, volunteers must prepare themselves for on many levels, according to Smith.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA):

  • Ensures the child is receiving physical and mental health care services;
  • Has access to school records and advocates for the child’s educational needs;
  • Visits the child and placement to evaluate the level of care the child is receiving;
  • Searches for and evaluates any potential temporary or permanent placements;
  • Advocates to find a permanent solution for the child as quickly as possible; and
  • Remains with the child until the case is closed and the child is no longer in the custody of the state.

Smith said volunteers often are faced with the reality that not every child in a difficult situation will be required by law to leave the home they are in.

“It happens and we understand the law, but it can be hard at times,” Smith said.

But Smith assures those choosing to serve that the job is also rewarding.

“Watching a child find their forever home and the excitement of everyone involved is amazing,” she said.

And this spring there’s another way folks can support East Texas CASA. Its annual fundraiser Blue Jeans and Ball Gowns kicks off April 1.

Smith said the event is the biggest fundraiser of the year for East Texas CASA, with half of the agency’s funding coming from local fundraising.

This year’s event is at 6 p.m. April 1 at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center. Tickets are $75 each.

“Each year is new and different and the show is always great,” Smith said. “Amy Canton coordinates all of our dancers, and they have already started practicing.”

For more information, visit bluejeansballgowns.com or for continual updates, search Blue Jeans & Balls Gowns on Facebook.

East Texas CASA, a nonprofit organization, has served abused and neglected children in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties since 1992 by providing trained community volunteers for every child who was assigned to the program through the court, according to easttexascasa.org. There are more than 1,000 CASA programs nationwide and 73 CASA programs in Texas.