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25 Years of Helping Foster Children Find a Voice
by Emily Merrell, Photography by Melissa Donner

As CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of the 2nd Judicial District celebrates its 25th anniversary of serving children in the foster care system this year, the nonprofit organization continues its mission to recruit, train and support volunteers who serve as advocates for children who have been placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect.

Jeremy Biggs, Executive Director of CASA of the 2nd Judicial District, wants to use CASA’s 25th anniversary to bring more awareness to the organization and to help it reach its goal of serving more children. CASA is celebrating its 25th anniversary during the months of April and May, which coincides with National Child Abuse Awareness Month, recognized in April.

“We will be celebrating during the months of April and May of this year,” said Biggs. “We have wonderful new videos that will be released during these months that highlight the work being done by our advocates and the impact our organization has on the lives of children in foster care. Our goal is to bring much more public awareness to the need for volunteer advocates and train new advocates to work alongside children and families. Our goal is to serve 100 percent of children in foster care as soon as possible.”

CASA advocates have a unique and much-needed role: to advocate for and support children who have been placed in the foster care system, children who may not have many adults in their life to consistently advocate for their well-being. The special advocates volunteer their time and go through training to ensure that they are properly supporting the children they serve.

Pre-service training includes a total of 20 hours of in-classroom or remote learning,” said Biggs. “National CASA approved curriculum is taught to all advocates to give each new advocate a solid foundation of knowledge of the child welfare system and the common reasons why children are removed from their home.”

Once volunteers have been trained, they have many duties to advocate for children in the foster care system. In 2020, 306 local children benefited from having a CASA advocate.

“Our advocates become friends, mentors and ultimately a constant adult presence in a child’s life that they trust to ensure their needs are being met,” said Biggs. “Advocates are required to meet with children and parents on a regular basis, submit court reports, attend court hearings (and) visit with foster parents, relatives, teachers, doctors, etc. Advocates also work closely with DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) case workers to assist in providing services to children.” 

Angie Tate serves as advocate coordinator for CASA of the 2nd Judicial District for Craighead County. Although she has been employed by CASA since 2017, her involvement began as a volunteer.

“Your heart gets so involved in it,” said Tate. “After I went through the advocate training in 2013, I worked a case that lasted about a year. In 2014, I moved to Conway for a short time. It was in the middle of my case. I talked about turning it over to another volunteer, but I just couldn’t. I drove back and forth to see the kids and for the hearings.”

When a position became available on the CASA staff, Tate decided to apply.

“I never thought that I would be able to do something that I was so passionate about as a career,” she said, explaining the impact that volunteers have on children in foster care. “The whole family is involved in the foster care system. It is traumatic for everyone in the family. CASA can work with the family to make permanent changes to get the kids back and to have a healthy family. One of the reasons CASA is able to have such a big impact is because these kids may have to go into different foster homes and they may have different case workers, but CASA is the consistent presence in their lives and it gives them some sense of stability.”

CASA is a national organization that was initially founded in 1982 in Seattle, Wash. by Judge Roy Sukkup. CASA of the 2nd Judicial District was founded in 1995 by a group of community-minded individuals, including philanthropists and local juvenile judges. While the mission of CASA has remained the same over the years, the organization has grown significantly since being founded locally.

“We have grown tremendously over the past 25 years,” said Biggs of the organization that serves Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. “More than 1,700 advocates have provided individual advocacy services to more than 4,600 children in foster care. We have expanded a few services and offered more as mentioned previously, but our core mission is to recruit, train and support volunteer advocacy for children in foster care. We adapt with any changes in statutes in regard to child welfare in our state but constantly promote the benefit of having CASA involved in child welfare cases. CASA has actually gained more access over the years in Arkansas, and our programs have a great working relationship with DCFS and the court system.” 

As for the next 25 years, Biggs hopes that CASA can continue providing the same services to children in need while also expanding services to support children who are aging out of the foster care system.

“Our number one goal is to serve 100 percent of children in foster care, and once we reach that goal, to continue doing that for as long as possible,” he said. “We also plan to expand services to aging youth in care by developing a detailed curriculum and teaching them life skills that are desperately needed. We want to make sure that children who are aging out of care are prepared to be successful adults and contribute many positive things to our community.” 

In light of April being National Child Abuse Awareness Month, Biggs provided some insight into how child abuse affects children in our community and his experiences working with children who have been victims of child abuse.

“In Arkansas, there were 34,266 reports of child maltreatment in fiscal year 2019,” said Biggs. “Locally, there were 2,928 reports of child maltreatment in Northeast Arkansas. More than 390 children are currently in foster care in Northeast Arkansas.”

Biggs also believes there are some misconceptions about children in the foster care system, that might deter people from volunteering to serve these children.

“There is a common misconception that children in the foster care system are damaged goods or are different than any other child,” said Biggs. “Children in foster care are just like other kids; they want to be loved, they want to grow up in a safe environment, they want to learn all the time and they thrive from having positive relationships with both their peers and adults. Every child deserves to smile, and that is what advocates help them achieve.”

Working with children who have been victims of abuse and neglect comes with many challenges, but Biggs says that the reward of helping children find a safe home outweighs the difficulties of the job.

“Learning the details about what some of these children suffer through is heart-wrenching and it’s difficult not to become numb to the abuse and neglect that is happening in our community,” he said. “However, we share in the joy of outcomes like reunification with parents and adoptions. Seeing kids find their smile once again and playing just a small role in identifying a safe and permanent home for them to grow up in is very rewarding.”

CASA welcomes all contributions of time and resources to help them reach their goal of serving each child in foster care. 

“Visit our website neacasa.org and click on the volunteer tab to learn how to become a volunteer advocate,” said Biggs. “Of course, we are always welcoming to new donors, as well. Money raised goes towards recruiting, marketing and training efforts to continue to add to our wonderful team of volunteers.”

To learn more, visit CASA’s website neacasa.org, call at (870) 333-5039, find them on social media @NEACASA or visit their office at 101 S. Church St. To report suspected child abuse, call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 843-6349.