GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – An organization dedicated to representing abused and neglected children in the court system could soon serve hundreds of children in George and Greene counties.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southeast Mississippi currently serves 180 children with 108 volunteers in Jackson County. It has the potential to help another 125 in the expanded service area.
CASA first came to Jackson County in 1985 as the first program of its kind in the state. With the expansion, nine of Mississippi’s 82 counties will now be served by a local CASA program.
When executive director Frances Allsup returned to the program in 2006, four volunteers were serving 11 children. Expanding north was always on the radar and often suggested by community partners, but Allsup waited for the right time.
“I felt like the Jackson County program had to be rebuilt and be strong before we could think about expansion,” said Allsup. “Let’s at least get to where we’re serving between 90 and 95% of the children in [state] custody.”
By the end of last year, the organization was representing 92% of the Jackson County children in state custody. Shawn Landrum and Chancery Court Judge Mark Maples, both from George County, joined the board of directors.
On October 1, they will officially expand into George and Greene counties with plans for a satellite office in Lucedale.
“All of the pieces just completely fell into place,” said Allsup. “We’re thrilled to serve these counties. The energy I’ve felt with the announcement, I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s just a renewal. It takes a village, we need the village to impact these children.”
CASA’s role is to represent abused and neglected children in state custody. Volunteer advocates are appointed by a youth court judge to advise the court regarding permanent placement of the children for which they advocate.
The volunteer researches through records and conversations with people involved in the case like the child, family and state social worker to determine if it is in a child’s best interest to stay with their parents or guardians, be placed in foster care or be freed for permanent adoption.
Volunteer advocates must go through 30 hours of training, split between in-person and online courses.
After that, they expect to spend 10 to 12 hours per month working on the child’s case. While a child may move between homes and change social workers, the CASA volunteer sees the case through from their appointment to the case closure.
“We work as a partner with all of the resources in that courtroom, but we’re the one that’s going to bring up what that child wants and be their voice,” said Allsup. “We’re gonna be there for those kids. I used to receive Mother’s Day cards every year from certain families.”
CASA is not a government agency but receives some support from the Department of Justice on the national level. Most of the local arm’s funding comes from private donations and the United Way of Jackson and George counties.
In addition to volunteer advocates, the organization will expand its board of directors from 14 to 21 members after adding the two counties. More information on supporting the organization is available on its website.