Need for children’s advocates on the rise in Ripley, Jefferson counties
Last year, a local non-profit eliminated their waitlist of children who needed a court appointed special advocate (CASA) to ensure the best decisions possible for them were being made in local court cases.
Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children are like many other organizations and businesses when it comes to the substantial amount of change it has caused to their day-to-day operations in a remarkably short period of time. One change that really caused worry to the Voices staff and current CASAs was the lack of anyone outside the home seeing the kids they are serving in person for several weeks in the last few months. CASAs that were able to communicate virtually with their kids did so, and the Voices staff was able to arrange temporary internet access for some kids, but not all. They are back to having in-person visits now.
Voices for Children has a small staff that act as informational resources on the Indiana court system and Department of Child Services operations that work with volunteers to create relationships with children who are involved in ongoing court cases. These relationships are established to provide someone – an adult outside of the home – that can help represent the child’s best interest in court when it comes to decisions that will have massive long, often lasting impacts on them.
Last year, the small staff and their network of volunteers served 400 kids in Jefferson and Ripley counties. Executive Director Tonya Ruble-Richter said last week that they were on track to serve more kids this year, and that they have a waitlist of kids waiting to get assigned a CASA again.
“I’ve been saying this for a while now, that it’s getting worse,” said Ruble-Richter of the number of cases they see year after year.
As of July 16, there were 39 kids waiting for an advocate. Three reside in Ripley County and 36 are in Jefferson County.
“The pandemic has created an unprecedented situation for everyone,” said Ruble-Richter. “…it’s a boiling pot for these families and that’s why we have a waitlist again.”
The Voices staff has seen an increase in severity in the cases that have opened so far during the COVID-19 related shut downs of school and places of employment. Ruble-Richter explained that the case substantiation process conducted by the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) is leading to a higher rate of new cases because the cases are more severe than those that are normally reported to the DCS hotline.
Hoosier kids were sent home from school and lost contact with teachers, school administrators and others that often make observations leading to hotline calls months earlier than normal. This could be why the cases are more severe by the time DCS is called to assess the situations.
A call to Ripley County’s DCS office was not returned to comment by deadline for this story.
Voices is also facing a loss of $60,000-$80,000 in their budget since they have had to cancel fundraisers, including the Make Art with the Pieces Auction in the spring usually held in Madison.
The organization is applying for more grants than they normally do to try to cover some of their expected losses. So far they have received local grants that were created and distributed in response to the coronavirus’ impact – $5,000 in Jefferson County and $2,500 in Ripley County.
Jefferson and Ripley county residents should keep an eye out for mailers from Voices. Ruble-Richter said they have decided to try a mail donation campaign for the first time to try to remind locals of the kids in need in their communities and to gather donations to help them continue to serve as many kids as possible.
Ruble-Richter and her staff are working out the logistics of finishing a CASA volunteer training class that was stopped midway through in March when schools and businesses were closed. They are considering options involving offering a virtual training session in the fall to try to have more volunteers available to support those kids that are waiting.
“I think it’s a hard thing to do virtually because of just how heavy some of the subjects are emotionally and it’s hard for new CASAs to get just how high a level of support they’ll have from our staff,” said Ruble-Richter.