CASA gets $250K grant to help foster chil­dren

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By CH­ERYL MATTIX

ELK­TON

cmat­tix@ce­cil­whig.com

— A pro­gram de­signed to match a trained vol­un­teer to a child in the foster care sys­tem re­cently got a $253,142 fed­eral grant that will go a long way to­ward boost­ing its 18-mon­thold op­er­a­tion here in the county.

Court Ap­pointed Spe­cial Ad­vo­cates (CASA), a pri­vate, non­profit group that op­er­ates in 21 of Maryland’s 24 ju­ris­dic­tions, is still in its in­fancy in Ce­cil County af­ter be­ing es­tab­lished in the spring of 2015 on a shoe­string bud­get of $35,000 from two dif­fer­ent grants.

The fed­eral grant CASA re­ceived is part of $46 mil­lion in fed­eral funds that came from the Vic­tims of Crime Act Vic­tim As­sis­tance pro­gram and through the Gover­nor’s Of­fice of Crime, Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion and was awarded to mul­ti­ple or­ga­ni­za­tions statewide. CASA ap­plied for the grant over the sum­mer and was no­ti­fied Nov. 21 of its ac­cep­tance.

“This news is so ex­cit­ing,” Ce­cil County CASA Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Gi­u­lia Hodge said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “This has been a jour­ney, but it’s a good one.”

Ce­cil County CASA grew out of ef­forts by a lo­cal com­mit­tee com­prised of judges, child wel­fare pro­fes­sion­als, lawyers and court per­son­nel who saw the need and did the ground­work in 2014, se­cur­ing a $20,000 grant from the state’s Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts and a $15,000 grant from the Don­ald­son Brown Foun­da­tion.

Sta­tis­tics show that over 1,776 re­ports of child abuse, or ne­glect were sus­pected in Ce­cil County in 2013, an av­er­age of al­most five each day. Ap­prox­i­mately 150 Ce­cil County chil­dren cur­rently live in foster homes, as a re­sult of abuse or ne­glect.

Ide­ally, Hodge wants to have 150 trained vol­un­teers — one per child — to help these chil­dren nav­i­gate the court sys­tem and ex­plain to judges what they’ve learned to be in the best in­ter­est of the child when their cases are heard in the court­room.

“We now have 14 trained vol­un­teers we have as­signed to chil­dren,” Hodge said, not­ing they need a lot more.

Each vol­un­teer, who must be at least 21 years old, must com­plete 30 hours of train­ing, pass a back­ground check and have one court ob­ser­va­tion be­fore they can be sworn in.

CASA ad­vo­cates are ex­pected to be in con­tact with the child they are as­signed to at least twice a month, but they can of­fer more time if they like. They also are ex­pected to in­ves­ti­gate the case, gather in­for­ma­tion about the child, makes sure the child gets all avail­able ser­vices and ad­vo­cate for the child in court.

The grant CASA re­ceived is re­im­bursable, which means the or­ga­ni­za­tion has to spend the money first, then get re­im­bursed for it.

“That presents a bit of a dilemma, since we are so low in funds, but we will work it out,” Hodge said.

Hodge said that CASA’s board of di­rec­tors has tar­geted the grant, which spans two years, to al­low Hodge to go from part-time to full-time and to be­gin pay­ing Sarah Wad­kins, of Ch­e­sa­peake City, who has been vol­un­teer­ing as an un­paid in­tern case man­ager.

It will also go to­ward buy­ing some needed equip­ment and pay­ing for the train­ing of more vol­un­teers.

Hodge was hired as part-time in Au­gust 2015 and Wad­kins came on board for free in June of this year. CASA is lo­cated on the third floor of the coun­ty­owned build­ing at 135 E. Main St., just two build­ings away from the cir­cuit court.

Ce­cil County Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Joyce Bowls­bey, who sits on the CASA board as an ex-of­fi­cio mem­ber, said she’s thrilled CASA re­ceived the grant.

“They are new and with vir­tu­ally no money, only re­ly­ing on a few fundrais­ers, so far,” Bowls­bey said. “This is a worth­while and much needed en­deavor to pro­tect our foster chil­dren.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s next fundraiser will be a fam­ily-ori­ented, in­door minia­ture golf tour­na­ment at the North East VFW on Jan. 15 from 1 to 5 p.m. It’s $10 at the door, $30 for a fam­ily and only $8.50 for early reg­is­tra­tion. Food is in­cluded in the ticket price.

Hodge says the county not only needs ad­di­tional vol­un­teers to be­come CASA helpers, but also needs more foster homes. For more in­for­ma­tion about CASA, call the of­fice at 410-9963025, or for more in­for­ma­tion about fos­ter­ing a child, call Me­gan Watt at So­cial Ser­vices at 410-996-0349.

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY CH­ERYL MATTIX

Sarah Wad­kins, left, case worker at CASA Ce­cil County and Gi­u­lia Hodge, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, are ex­cited about a new grant they re­ceived.

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