— The end of summer and the start of a new school year is an exciting time for most children. But for some, the beginning of school could reveal a dark secret when signs of abuse and neglect these children have suffered over the summer are noticed by teachers, staff and other parents.
Last year, schools were the number one source of reports of child abuse and neglect, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes Child Protective Services. Last year, CPS completed 35,100 investigations as a result of reports from school officials.
“Because children are subject to less adult supervision over the summer, it’s not uncommon for reports of suspected abuse and neglect to spike at the start of the school year,” said Barb Tucker, CASA of Palo Pinto and Parker Counties’ executive director.
Many of the children who are confirmed as victims of abuse and/or neglect are removed from their homes and placed into foster care — often far from their friends, families and schools. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers are specially screened and trained to speak up for abused and neglected children who, through no fault of their own, end up in the foster care system.
“Being uprooted from their homes and families is scary for these children. The CASA volunteers in Palo Pinto and Parker Counties want to make sure that these children do not get lost in the overburdened foster care system,” Tucker added.
“For that reason, we need more people in our community to speak up and make sure these children’s voices are heard,” Tucker said. “We want to help ensure that their stay in foster care is as short as possible and that they are placed in safe, loving homes quickly so they can begin to heal.”
Currently, there are 295 children in the child protection system in Palo Pinto and Parker counties, and just 102 CASA volunteers to advocate for their best interests.
“Too many children are forced to go through the chaos of moving through the child protection system alone,” Tucker said. “CASA of Palo Pinto and Parker Counties needs more volunteers to step up and be a voice for children who desperately need them.”
CASA volunteers are called into action when children are removed from their home due to abuse and/or neglect and a court case is filed “in the interest of” the children. The judge in the case appoints a trained CASA volunteer to be a voice for the children, and to report their concerns and recommendations.
“CASA volunteers assist all parties to the case by providing information and reports,” explained the Honorable Jerry Buckner, Parker County Court at Law No. 1 Judge.
“Being a CASA volunteer is rewarding and everything that the volunteer does is ‘positive,’” Buckner described. “They assist in determining what is in the best interest of the child. The CASA reports are very valuable to me, in my position as a judge.”
CASA volunteers advocate for children’s needs not only in court but also in the child welfare system by helping the children through their struggles in foster care. Importantly, the CASA volunteer’s number one goal is to help the child find a safe, loving family.
“We need more dedicated CASA volunteers to walk with children every step of the way and ensure that they are placed into safe, permanent homes as quickly as possible,” Tucker said.
CASA of Palo Pinto and Parker Counties is one of very few CASA programs in the state that provides a CASA volunteer to every case when a judge requests one. However, as the number of child abuse cases grow, so does the need for trained CASA volunteers to be ready to answer the appointment from a judge.
“CASA of Parker County has spoiled me because there has always been a volunteer available (when requested),” Buckner added. “If it were not operated so efficiently, I would be worried all the time as to whether a CASA volunteer would be available to assist the court. It gives me great peace of mind knowing that volunteers are available 100 percent of the time.”
This school year, become a CASA volunteer and help children in need find safe, permanent homes. New training classes begin Sept. 9. For more information, visit online at www.casapalopintoparker.org or call 817-599-6224 (Parker County) and 940-325-1096 (Palo Pinto County).