‘It tugs at your heart’

GREENFIELD — Candice Hammond has met too many kids who think an abusive life is normal.

The cops show up because Daddy yells or gets too rough. Or Mommy disappears for hours at a time, locked away in a bathroom where no one can see her get high. Each night just like the one before.

Hammond leads a group of community volunteers dedicated to helping Hancock County kids living realities like these. Each story they encounter has its own horrible twists and turns, she said, and there simply aren’t enough volunteers to cover the need.

The number of children on a waiting list for a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer who looks out for a child tangled up in a case involving abuse or neglect, doubled in the last year, officials say. The need reflects a trend the Indiana Department of Child Services first began reporting last July, when state reports showed a 14 percent increase in child abuse and neglect cases filed in Hancock County over the previous year.

State law requires a judge to appoint a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, in every court case where a child’s welfare is called into question.

At the close of 2014, there were 20 children placed on a waiting list to be partnered with an advocate. By the end of 2015, that number had jumped to 51, said Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA.

The county currently has 15 advocates. To meet the increase in need, Hammond, who serves as a local coordinator, estimates the county needs at least 40 more.

The advocate serves as the eyes and ears of a judge, peeking into the living situation of child who has been labeled by the court as a Child in Need of Service, Craycraft said.

Advocates observe a child at home and school, and they make written recommendations to the judge about what they believe is in the child’s best interest.

Usually, those recommendations address where a child should live – with parents or otherwise – once the proceedings have come to a close. Advocates operate independently from any other agency, including the Department of Child Services, which encourages an unbiased assessment, officials said.

CASA originated in Seattle in the 1980s and came to Hancock County in 2004. Each year, the program helps an average of 120 local children.

And it’s not an easy job, officials say. The cases the advocates are assigned often involve severe neglect, and the advocates have access to police reports and medical evaluations just like any other court staff.

Of all the cases that have crossed Hammond’s desk, she said Zoey Wagoner’s is the most haunting. The 1-year-old girl died in May after suffering blunt force traumatic injuries at the hands of her father, who was convicted early this year of her murder. Zoey’s mother has pleaded guilty to neglect in her daughter’s death and awaits sentencing.

It was heartbreaking to hear the details of the case — the child suffered lacerations to her liver and would have been in severe pain before she died, reports state — and even more upsetting to meet with other children who lived in the same home, Hammond said.

Hammond said she often wonders what would have happened if someone had looked into Zoey’s home life a little sooner. Signs of neglect and abuse are the sort of issues CASA are trained to identify, Hammond said.

Potential volunteers must be at least 21 years old, pass screenings and background checks and complete training, Hammond said. They are required to visit the children in their assigned cases at least once a month, as well as make appearances at hearings and complete paperwork for the judge.

CASA directors limit the workload of volunteers in order to ensure each child is receiving the advocate’s full attention; typically, volunteers handle one case at a time. Those cases last an average of 18 months, Hammond said.

“These kids don’t always have a voice. They need someone who is going to stick with them,” she said.

Advocates are charged with delivering tough messages, and they don’t always mean the child ends up with their parents. But being involved is a rewarding experience, because volunteers leave a courtroom knowing they’ve done what’s best for a child, longtime volunteer Cindy Brown said.

Brown has been an advocate for about 10 years in both Hancock and Henry counties.

Her first case has always stuck with her, she said. A 6-month-old girl was removed from her mother’s home after the state determined the woman couldn’t care for her anymore. The girl was 3 years old by the time everything was settled, and Brown had succeeded in convincing a judge the child should be adopted by her foster family.

Taking a child from her birth parents is a tough call, she said, but sometimes in the child’s best interest.

“It tugs at your heart,” Brown said. “It’s very difficult to put yourself in that child’s shoes.”

Pull Quote

“These kids don’t always have a voice. They need someone who is going to stick with them.”

– Candice Hammond, volunteer co-coordinator for Hancock County Court-Appointed Special Advocates

What does it take to be a CASA volunteer?

Commitment — Most cases last at least one year, if not longer. Nationally, advocates give an average of 88 hours per year. They are required to visit a child at home and school, as well as make court appearances.

Objectivity — Advocates speak to a child’s best interests. That might not always mean what the child wants or what the child’s biological parents want. CASA volunteers must be able to remain objective in their recommendations.

Good communication skills — CASA volunteers must be able to talk to a wide variety of people. They present written reports to the court and speak in the courtroom on behalf of the child.

Source: East Central Indiana CASA

How to volunteer

Court-Appointed Special Advocates ensure a child receives state services and helps create a plan to keep the child safe and protected in future.

For more information about the application process, call 317-477-0034.

Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.