Voice for the voiceless: Woman honored for helping kids

GREENFIELD — Unwavering dedication to the county’s children in need has earned a Greenfield resident recognition from the regional chapter of Indiana’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates.

Brenda Eckel of Greenfield was recently named the 2016 Hancock County CASA Volunteer of the Year, an honor bestowed on those who fight for children’s rights in the judicial system.

The Court-Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, program utilizes volunteers to evaluate the needs of children going through the court system, often in cases where their parents have been accused of neglect. The advocate serves as the eyes and ears of a judge, looking into a child’s living situation, and the voice of the child in the courtroom, advocating for the child’s best interests in any legal situation.

Each year, leaders of the East Central Indiana CASA program recognize one volunteer in Madison County and Hancock County whom they believe stands out among their fellows as an extraordinary voice for the voiceless, officials said.

Eckel joined the advocacy program’s roster of volunteers two years ago, and it quickly back clear to her superiors she is willing to do about anything for the children whose cases she oversees, said Candice Hammond, a coordinator for the Hancock County CASA program.

Eckel said she first became interested in becoming a child advocate about 30 years ago after seeing first-hand the great impact one of the program’s volunteers was able to make in the life a young child Eckel knew.

And Eckel had already spent her life serving children, so the volunteer position seemed like a natural fit; after retiring with 20 years with the Girl Scouts of Hancock County on her resume, Eckel signed up to be a child advocate. She quickly made an impression on the advocacy program’s local organizers, they said.

State law requires a judge to appoint a child advocate to every court case where a child’s welfare is called into question, from divorces to cases involving neglect or violence. There are roughly two dozen advocates on the county’s current roster.

Traditionally, newer volunteers are assigned to cases where only one child in involved, Hammond said; but even with a short tenure of experience, Eckel agreed to take on a more complicated case involving five young children who were placed in foster care homes around the state.

Eckel regularly met with the kids in their foster homes, Hammond said. At the same time, she met with the children’s biological parents, stepped up to attend meetings with school officials and even attended therapy sessions with the children, Hammond said.

In addition to those commitments, Eckel wrote regular court reports to ensure a judge was kept up to date about the children’s well-being, Hammond said. Eckel also visits the Hancock County CASA office to lend a hand and has stepped up to mentor newer volunteers and help them find their footing in the legal system, Hammond said.

Eckel has dedicated much of her life to helping children better themselves.

For more than 20 years, she’s worked as a leader of the Girls Scouts of Hancock County, helping coordinate the activities for girls in schools across Hancock County. Joining the child advocacy program seemed like an extension of that work, Eckel said.

Eckel said she believes the most important part of being a child advocate is making sure children know they have a friend who will listen to their concerns.

“Kids respond well when they know their voice is being heard,” Eckel said.

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