Child Advocates has been the voice of children for 30 years

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“In that court hearing you’ll have a mother and her attorney, you’ll have a father and his attorney, you’ll have a DCS (Department of Child Services) caseworker and their attorney. The child is rarely ever in court. Without a guardian ad litem or CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) there’s nobody in that courtroom speaking for that child.”

It is thus that Barry Chambers, chief counsel for Child Advocates, describes the role his organization plays in cases of child abuse and neglect. As CASA for Marion County, Child Advocates is celebrating its 30th anniversary, having assisted more than 75,000 children since its inception. Today, the organization advocates for every child involved in a Marion County abuse or neglect case – more than 5,000 annually – with the help of more than 400 volunteers.

il-child-advocates03-15col.jpg Child Advocates is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2012. Staff members include, left to right: Cynthia Dean, attorney; LaDonna Wattley, volunteer director; Cynthia Booth, executive director; and Barry Chambers, chief legal counsel. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Long time coming

In 1982, the Indianapolis chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women saw a need for greater community involvement in and information about children involved in cases of abuse and neglect. Using a model created by a judge in Seattle, the group trained volunteers from the Junior League of Indianapolis to become the “eyes and ears of the court” so more informed decisions could be made about children in these cases.

In the beginning, the organization only could handle a limited number of cases, yet word spread and Child Advocates and the CASA program continued to grow. In 2005, the Indiana Legislature changed an earlier statute that said every child should have a guardian ad litem or CASA to say every child shall have a guardian ad litem or CASA.

“At that point we were supposed to represent all children, but there was no new funding attached to that,” said Cynthia K. Booth, executive director of Child Advocates. “In 2010, there was a Court of Appeals case that said the county should be filling that gap, so since that time through a bipartisan effort … the county came up with a way to support our services in Children in Need of Services cases.”

Other programs have been introduced by the organization, including a custody program to advocate for children involved in paternity, divorce or custody cases. In these instances, judges will call on Child Advocates if they feel the child needs an advocate.

CASA connection

Recruiting and training CASA volunteers is a key role Child Advocates plays in assisting at-risk kids. Word-of-mouth is the organization’s primary means of enlisting new volunteers.

“Our volunteers come from all walks of life,” said LaDonna Wattley, volunteer program director. “It’s a really nice mix of people. You can have a therapist, you can have an attorney, somebody else might be the cake decorator at Kroger or a teacher. In class you’re all volunteers. You’re finding out from the child what they really would like to have happen.”

The organization is in need of 300 additional volunteers to help with abuse and neglect cases in Marion County. Training covers the professional and emotional side of being a CASA.

children“My standard quote is that ‘Being a CASA is heartwork,’” Wattley said. “We don’t sugar-coat. It’s being really sure that people understand their role. Our volunteers really are advocating, they’re monitoring and they’re reporting to the judge. We talk a lot about the realities of the system … and we try to make them understand there’s only so much you can do.”

A child’s eyes and ears

Nancy Englert, a project attorney for Ice Miller, has been a volunteer CASA since 2008. She’s advocated for 30 children from all races, backgrounds and circumstances. Case results are as varied as the kids for which she advocates.

“The best kinds of cases are when parents take responsibility for what happens and are motivated to do what the judge tells them to do,” Englert said. “On the other hand, I’ve worked in situations where the parents just don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to do for a variety of reasons.”

She cited mental illness and drug abuse – which often go hand in hand – as well as alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of education and poverty as reasons why parents don’t cooperate with a judge’s orders.

“Not all of those things are prevalent in all cases,” she said.

Englert, like all CASA volunteers, works closely with a guardian ad litem from Child Advocates. She meets with the child as well as the caregiver, the DCS caseworker, therapists, teachers, social workers and physicians to discuss their thoughts on what’s best for the child. From these meetings, she compiles advocacy reports on the child’s behalf. These, along with reports from others involved in the case, are submitted to the judge, who takes each into consideration when making decisions about the child’s future.

“It’s the children who have the least control, because they’re children,” Englert said. “They may be the most vulnerable people in the world because not only are they children but they don’t have their parents with them to be their advocates. It’s a really big responsibility, but I can’t think of any volunteer role that would ever be more meaningful.”•

  • Child Advocates helps themselves not the children!
    Child Advocates profited over 6 million last year alone. They are bullies & do not act in children's best interests but rather their own. They placed my children full time with their unlicensed alcoholic father despite recommendations for over 5 yrs. Meanwhile my children have medical conditions left untreated living with their father and their education has suffered greatly. Get these people terminated!!!

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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues