When most people think of Williamson County, they think of it as the state’s wealthiest county, full of big houses and affluent people. Behind that façade, however, are real people with real problems, and unfortunately, many of the people in need in the county are children.
Not everyone has the money, the resources, or the wherewithal to take care of themselves. Some people in the county are down on their luck, some are addicted to drugs, and some — the worst — are sexual predators. It is the children of these people who pay a heavy price, children who are often overlooked by society and suffer from abuse and neglect.
One organization that is trying to make a difference in the lives of children is Williamson County CASA.
We asked Danielle McMorran, co-executive director and director of development for Williamson County CASA, to tell us about her organization and the challenges they face.
For those who don’t know, please tell us what CASA is.
CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocate.” What happens is when a child is introduced into the juvenile court system as a result of abuse or neglect in the home, a judge can assign a CASA advocate to become responsible for the welfare of that child as he or she moves through the system.
That means managing and documenting all aspects of the case, making recommendations to the court on permanent living arrangements, communicating consistently with the child to ensure his or her best interests are being met for the short and long term, and remaining actively engaged until the court discharges the case.
CASA volunteers are not therapists or official legal counsel. They are, in essence, a friend and responsible advocate, with the goal of securing a solid home for a child so that he or she has a fighting chance to become a fulfilled, happy adult.
So who are CASA advocates?
CASA advocates are trained citizens; they are community volunteers that want to help better the lives of children. They come from many walks of life and have varied backgrounds, but the one thing they have in common is the desire to help children. In Williamson County we have CASA advocates that are mothers, retired teachers and school principals, bankers, attorneys — we even have one county elected official and a retired Secret Service agent. They are not trained in law, even though some are attorneys. They are really citizens that want to be more involved in the community.
How are they trained?
They are trained here at our office by certified staff following a curriculum established by the national CASA. It is a 30-hour course plus three hours of court observation.
How often is training, and what kind of people do you look for?
We train advocates three to four times a year. We had 11 new advocates sworn in this past week. Advocates undergo a strict background check, must provide three references, a one-on-one interview with our staff, and additional screening.
We look for individuals who maintain composure in crisis, ability to work with a wide range of people, anywhere from medical, to school professionals, to inmates. We look for objectivity, people who can suspend their personal judgment; we prefer individuals who have experience with kids.
What kinds of cases does a Williamson County CASA advocate see?
An advocate serves abuse and neglect cases, dependency cases, a few custody cases. They handle cases where a child has been sexually abused, where children receive a lack of education, where there is drug abuse at home — frankly, all of the above. The neglect of children is probably the largest problem area we work on, much of that likely due to drugs. We have seen an increase these past few years, not leaps and bounds, but an increase nonetheless.
How many cases on average per year does Williamson County CASA handle?
This past year 68 advocates served 307 children in the county. Since this county organization started in 1993, we have served 1,220 children. Some of these kids have been in system multiple times, but we only count the children we serve, not how many times they have been in the system. If they come back in the system, we try to pair them back up with the same CASA advocate in order to keep some consistency in the child’s life.
We could serve more if we had capacity, and by that I mean more funds and volunteers. We have grown to try to serve the community; for example in 2003 we only had nine advocates. If we had more resources we could serve more children, and judges would assign us more cases where children are in need.
How are you funded?
We don’t receive government funding; some people think we are a government program, but that is a misconception. Williamson County does give us some funding, but the lion’s share comes from grants, community and family foundations, corporate and individual donations, and fundraising events.
For example on April 30 we are having our biggest fundraiser, called Voices for Children, at the Franklin Theatre. This year’s event features Kix Brooks and a live auction. We even hold an online auction prior to the main event for those who cannot attend. Items auctioned include autographed guitars, exotic trips and golf packages.
Can you give us some examples of how children benefit from these events?
Because of strict confidentially I won’t go into too much detail, but let me tell you about two of the children we have helped.
There was a 6-year-old girl here in Williamson County who was being sexually abused by her father. She was removed from the home and began a journey that consisted of six schools and eight foster homes in two years. Through working with CASA she eventually found a loving home, was adopted, is now graduating from high school and is headed to college.
Also, there was a 6-year-old boy who was left without a mother after a drug overdose and never had a father involved in his life. He was taken into state’s custody, placed in a foster home, and a CASA advocate was appointed to his case. His advocate met with him often, both at school and his various foster homes, to let him know his voice was being heard and his CASA was fighting to find his “forever home.” His advocate went to all his hearings, advocated for his specific needs and provided the judge with necessary information to make informed decisions. His advocate attended his adoption ceremony when he was 9, maintained contact with the adoptive parents, and is overjoyed that the once empty and broken 6-year-old boy is now a fulfilled and successful 16-year-old high school football player. He could be your child’s best friend and next-door neighbor.
I would like to add that Williamson County is a great county and a great place to live, but there are children in need here, and they can use and greatly appreciate all the help they can get.