Stan Voit: CASA stays open to serve troubled kids

Mar. 04, 2013 @ 12:02 AM

They’re called Court Appointed Special Advocates, better known by the acronym CASA.

These are volunteers who go through 30 hours of training and then agree to be advocates for children in crisis. They meet with school officials. They make home visits. They report to the judge. They are perhaps the lone person on the planet who exists solely to serve the needs of a particular child in trouble.

And Sevier County came close, so very close, to losing the program. Only through the sheer will of Jim King, the benevolence of some people who appreciated the importance of the program and wanted to see it saved, and some dedicated volunteers did CASA remain viable in this community.

It started last spring when CASA of East Tennessee, based in Knoxville and the parent of the Sevier County program, decided to drop four counties from its umbrella and serve only Knox. The agency cited funding issues for the decision. The CASA programs in the four counties, including Sevier, got a 90-day notice.

King, who had been the Sevier County program director and lone paid employee since 2006, saw his job, and with it the services to some 100 children, about to end. The state allots $15,000 a year to counties with CASA programs, so that money was going away as well.

“We had 90 days to put a program together,” King said. Three months to find an office, find donors and get the program up and running and acceptable to the state. King was already putting in more than 60 hours a week as CASA county director, supervising the volunteers, holding training sessions and doing PR when necessary. With no income, his bank account was approaching a zero balance. Still he pushed on. Now he had to learning Fundraising 101 in a hurry.

He quickly got the two General Sessions Court judges on board. Judges Jeff Rader and Dwight Stokes, who run juvenile court, penned a letter King could use to show potential donors, in which they tout the program’s successes and the need to keep it going. Both judges have CASAs sit in on juvenile court sessions and make oral and, later, written reports to them. As for King, they wrote, “we applaud his efforts in working toward the continuation of CASA services in Sevier County, as well as his work and efforts over the last several years.”

King was trying to raise money at a time when government and business budgets were already locked up. Others came through. The Sevier County Bar Association doubled its contribution to the program. Attorney Jerry Kerley provided office space at greatly reduced rent at the corner of Bruce Street and the Parkway. Joe Baker made a hefty donation through his Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery. D&S Construction made a large gift.

All that time, King’s own bank account was empty. He pushed on, knowing the value CASA had to the community.

On Thursday an open house was held at the new CASA office at Bruce and Parkway. Almost everything inside has been donated. The state’s $15,000 annual contribution has been restored. King now has a VISTA employee, Holly Byrd, who devotes full-time to the agency. A new training session with eight future CASAs starts this month; it’s quite a commitment of time just to get trained, then at least 10 hours a month in service — most CASAs give more than that.

CASA serves children appointed by the court. They are kids who need an advocate, either because of problems at home, in school or in the legal system. It is rewarding work, the volunteers say; some of them serve more than one child, and the kids can range from infants to 18.

It may be unfair that CASA of East Tennessee dropped Sevier County so abruptly, especially considering the caseload here and how hard it would be to start up a new program. But King wouldn’t let it die. Neither would lots of his own advocates who wanted to see it continue.

Now all he needs is an army of volunteers. Every child needs someone on his side. That someone could be you. Call him at 654-7097.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.