"Imagine in the middle of the night someone who is a total stranger to you barges into your home with the police, walks up and says, 'We are going to move you to a different home,'? " Xanthoula Groom asks.
"So they grab a trash bag, throw in some of your clothes, and take you to a stranger's house and say you have to live there right now. Imagine as an adult having to go through that, let alone a child."
That is the experience of many children who the state takes into custody because of findings of abuse or neglect. But juvenile judges can bring in a Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteer to work on behalf of children in state custody to ensure their interests aren't lost in the bureaucracy of the child welfare system.
"We work for the children," said Groom, a volunteer for CASA of Pulaski County. "They can be any kid, from [a child at home aged] 17 to newborn infants, taken into care straight from the hospital. It varies tremendously, just as the reasons children have come into care for. My job is to get to know the case and the people involved in it very well so I can make recommendations to the judge regarding the best interest of the children."
Groom has been appointed to four cases in the two years that she has been a volunteer. She visits the kids from her cases in their foster homes, school or daycares; meets their biological parents and any other relative involved in the case; testifies in court; and participates in school meetings. She studies the children's backgrounds, medical records and other relevant factors to make recommendations to the judge that will directly affect the future of these children.
Giving emotional support is a big part of her job, Groom says. "No matter how you slice it and dice it, all of this is extremely traumatic to kids," she said. "These children that end up in foster care, even though the circumstances may be a million times better than they ever were before, are dealing with the grief from being separated from their parents or caretakers, the conflicting emotions of 'I love that person' and 'I can't see them right now' so I miss them, but yet that person may have harmed me or neglected me. There are so many dimensions to our feelings and the same person who may have beaten you or starved you is the same person who raised you and the first person you ever touched."
CASA receives 55 percent of its funding from Pulaski County, 35 percent from an Arkansas State CASA Association grant and 10 percent from individual or corporate donors. All cash donations go directly into services for children via volunteer recruitment, training and support staff to supervise the volunteers.
Though volunteering for CASA is not a job for everyone, anyone can apply. Advocates need to go through a 35-hour pre-service training that consists of classes that relate to the dynamics of human behavior associated with child abuse and neglect, as well as the relevant state and federal laws. For more information or to donate, visit pulaskicountycasa.org or call 501-340-6741.