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Organization gives voice to voiceless

Published 10/1/2011 in Local News : United Way

Editor's note: This is the 11th in a series of stories highlighting the 21 agencies to receive United Way's annual campaign funds. The next article will run in Tuesday's edition of The Telegram.

BY ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

In cases of child abuse and neglect, the children affected can find themselves being lost in an overburdened judicial system, while awaiting the court to rule on their ultimate destinations. Oftentimes, because the courts are overburdened, these children aren't able to receive just representation.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is a non-profit organization that has taken on this issue since 1977. The Spirit of the Plains, CASA serves the 25th judicial district, which encompasses Finney, Scott, Kearny, Hamilton, Wichita and Greeley counties.

"The judges appoint us to those cases involving child abuse and neglect, so once we're appointed we'll ask a volunteer to take the case," Spirit of the Plains, CASA Executive Director Susan Escareno said. "The children involved in these cases have experienced anything from sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment or neglect — we see a lot of neglect."

CASA volunteers each receive 25 to 30 hours of training prior to taking on a case. They then take time to get to know the child, interview prominent figures in the child's life, review records, and then based on all of the information they collect, prepare written reports and appear in court to recommend to the judge what they believe is in the best interest of the child.

"We're child-focused," Escareno said. "After conducting all of our research, we're allowed to make recommendations to the court — if the child needs therapy, whether visits between the child and parent should be monitored or supervised — that sort of thing. As a last resort, if we feel like a case has been open for a long time and it hasn't made any headway, we can recommend termination of parental rights, but we don't like to do that if we can avoid it. Our ultimate goal is reintegration. Since that doesn't always happen, the next best thing is adoption. A lot of our kids have been adopted by great families."

Seventeen to 18 percent of the Garden City program's funding comes from the Finney County United Way, which Escareno said is vital to their operation.

"We're very thankful for the United Way. Without them, I know we'd be without at least one staff person. And they've supported us from the first year CASA opened here and every year since," Escareno said.

The CASA program is one of 21 programs that the Finney County United Way supports.

"We value all 21 — each has a great value in the community," United Way Executive Director Consuelo Sandoval said. "What makes CASA special is they are a voice for a child and they have the child's best interest at heart when it comes to being represented in court, the social services system or in school — so, like any of the organizations we support, it really fits into our three building blocks which are health, education and income."

CASA currently has 52 certified volunteers advocates, not all of which are currently active, but Escareno said that is the highest number they have ever had. So far in 2011, they have worked on cases involving 193 children in 2011. The respective cases can take anywhere from a few months to several years.

Jane Krug, a former Victor Ornelas kindergarten teacher, began volunteering as an advocate in 2009. She said it was almost like being on the flip side of teaching.

"I think it fits in very well with my experience as a teacher. There were times when I'd want to do more for a particular student, but I had to keep focused on what my job was," Krug said. "Now, this is a chance to be more on the other side and kind of get a glimpse of what I probably wasn't aware of in the classroom."

Other agencies that will benefit from the 2012 United Way funds include: Finney County RSVP; Kansas Children's Service League; Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts; Smart Start; Playground Program; Family Crisis Services; The Salvation Army; Catholic Social Service; Meals on Wheels; Habitat for Humanity; Garden City Family YMCA; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Miles of Smiles; Russell Child Development Center; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; Community Day Care; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

Spirit of the Plains, CASA

Director: Susan Escareno

Address: 310 E. Walnut St., Suite LL3

Phone: 271-6197

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