On Jan. 1, significant changes to the juvenile justice system in Georgia went into effect. The new law changes the handling of cases of not only delinquent children, but abused and neglected children as well. Based on research and best practices, Georgia’s juvenile code has been reorganized, revised and modernized to result in positive changes that will make a difference in the lives of many generations of Georgia’s children and families for years to come.
However, the system still requires help from numerous community organizations and individuals working together with government agencies to better protect abused and neglected children.
Child welfare in Georgia should ultimately be about the unalienable rights of a child. Our children need to do more than simply survive. They deserve to thrive, in the safety and love of a family, throughout their childhood and into adulthood.
Over 13,000 children came through Georgia’s foster care system last year, and on any given day over 7,000 children are in foster care. In our state, there are numerous community-based organizations that help these children, including the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
The CASA program works to ensure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. A CASA child advocate is a deeply committed, specially trained, independent volunteer who works within the child welfare system and is appointed by juvenile court judges to individual cases. CASA volunteers partner with DFCS and many other child welfare providers as they advocate for the best interests of these children.
The CASA program in Georgia has 2,200 volunteers throughout the state who advocate for about 60 percent of the abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes and enter the juvenile court system. CASA volunteers are ordinary individuals — from our own communities — who do extraordinary work on behalf of these children, such as helping to unite children with relatives, encouraging parents to get their lives back on track, helping to find adoptive homes, ensuring children’s educational and medical needs are met and aiding foster youth with needed skills to successfully transition to adulthood.
CASA volunteers bring first-hand information, life experience and community values to a massive state system charged with the care of children who cannot live safely at home. About 40 percent of the current foster children still need a CASA volunteer.
CASA for Children trains and supports community volunteers to advocate for foster youth here in Cherokee County. The local nonprofit was started over 20 years ago under the helm of then Juvenile Court Judge CJ Gober. Since that time, the CASA program in Cherokee has provided quality child advocacy to over 2,000 children during their journey through foster care. Currently, Cherokee County has almost 300 children involved in our juvenile court/ foster care system, but only 60 CASA volunteers to advocate for each child’s specific needs.
I applaud the faith-based community, the support of our elected and public officials, and many, many others in our communities who work together every day to help these children live lives of destiny, rather than fate, to the benefit of their children and generations to come. We must remember that once grown, these former foster children will become our future doctors, teachers and leaders. Our opportunity then, which lies within our challenge, is to help every child come out of this tumultuous period of vulnerability and fear recognizing his or her own potential and believing in himself or herself.
I encourage each and every one of you to get involved in your communities, in some way, to help support the children in our child welfare system. The opportunities are numerous. If you are interested in providing a powerful voice for a child by becoming a CASA volunteer, please call (770) 345-3274 for more information. Daytime and evening classes are available beginning April 7.
Deidre Hollands is a lifelong resident of Cherokee County. She has been involved in victim advocacy in Cherokee County for over 15 years and has been the executive director at CASA for Children for 10 years. She and her husband, Charles, live in the Union Hill Community. They have four children and one grandchild.