By MARLENE BOHR/Press Correspondent
Enya, the Court Appointed Special Advocate CASA program facility dog, paid a visit to the Morris County Commissioners at the March 27 special meeting. Accompanying Enya was CASA Executive Director Michelle Cobern from Mount Pleasant. Cobern explained Enya’s role in the program and talked about the recognition of April as Child Abuse Month.
“Enya is the first dog in Texas who goes to court with the children three times a month,” Cobern said. “She makes the kids feel so comfortable.”
Cobern explained that CASA volunteers are court appointed to be guardian ad litems for the children who are in foster care.
“A CASA volunteer has to have extensive training,” she said. “As a volunteer, we are given time to find a foster home or placement for adoption of the children. It is difficult; we have had one since the age of 18 months. He can stay in CASA until he is 18 years old and if in college, he can stay in CASA until age 21. Once a child is removed from the parents’ home, only two people can be appointed; either a CASA or an attorney. Attorneys are busy people and are not able to visit the children often.
“If children are placed out of state, we go to that state and check on them. Attorneys do not have the time and even if they did, the bill would be astronomical. CASA volunteers do save the county money and we do the best for the child. With CASA, they have one person who is consistently in their life. We used to have five volunteers and we now have 70. That makes a difference.”
Cobern spoke about Hank Whitman Jr. who now serves as the commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“When he came on, he was looking at the rural programs,” she said. “He said he had seen so many child deaths and has set up things differently. He has set a different bar to remove children from the home.
“CASA is only called when the children are removed from the home. We are seeing the number of child fatalities rise because now we are required to report them.”
Cobern said CASA is one of the largest volunteer organizations in the state.
“We need to increase our volunteers so we can do more,” she said. “There are some counties in Texas that are not served and we are working on them. We apply and get new grants to help with the expenses. Of the 70 volunteers, we have to go through hours of training and need money for manuals. We also have a mini-store in our office and get diapers and formula, etc. Sometimes we have to provide beds.
“We try to help families keep their children if at all possible. We are a non-profit non-government agency. The $350 a month you give us is used for basic needs of the child. Volunteers are not paid gas or hours. All the resources we have go to the children. For every 30 volunteers, there is one paid staff member. The rest are all volunteers. They are nurses, retired teachers, etc. We have to pre-screen people very thoroughly to be a CASA member. It is a powerful but humbling position to be in.
“Each county has a welfare board and if able they will provide the child $25 a month. For each special needs child, the cost is $328 a month which the foster family gets. We have foster families that are just in it to collect a fee. They are eliminated quickly.
“We have 22 cases in Morris County. I would advise you to speak to Steve Cowan, the district attorney, and see if we are doing okay in the court. We hope to save as many of the kids as we can. We need to change legislation. We go every year to Austin and ask for tougher laws for parents having children on meth.”
Cobern continued with the many horrible things that happen to children whose parents are on meth or other drugs. She explained things that people could not imagine happening to children. The CASA program volunteers are vital in the lives of many of these children, according to Cobern.