FAIRMONT — Quite too often when children are abused or neglected, their lives change forever.
From law enforcement to social workers to possibly entering the foster care system, children often feel abandoned to a point that their lives are thrown off track.
One group that works to ensure children are heard when cases of abuse or neglect take place is CASA of Marion County, a nonprofit organization that provides Court Appointed Child Advocates.
“CASA is invaluable to the court system,” Marion County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Wilson said. “They provide another set of eyes, invaluable opinions they can proffer to the court, plus they work with the families and help the families and the children. So, they just provide a valuable service to the court.”
On Aug. 30, Wilson hosted a brief swearing-in ceremony for Marion County’s newest child advocate, Debra Conaway, of Fairmont. Before he read the official CASA oath to Conaway he thanked her for taking the time to volunteer to help children through what can be described as “their darkest hour.”
“It’s kind of a tough thing sometimes to deal with the kids and see what’s going on, so it’s an emotional kind of thing too,” Wilson said.
Conaway, a retired nurse, said she learned about CASA earlier this year when she and her husband accompanied a friend to a CASA fundraising event in Pennsylvania. She said she was moved to a point that she wanted to become a child advocate.
“I was thinking with all the drug abuse, there’s probably a lot of kids out there that could use this,” Conaway said.
Conaway said another aspect of the program that spoke to her was how child advocates build relationships with the kids they’re helping. Some CASA volunteers told their stories at the dinner she attended as did some of the children who had been helped by the program.
“And some of them had developed long-term relationships even after their service to the children had ended and that was really pretty impressive,” Conaway said. “They looked at them as mentors.”
The CASA oath explains the serious nature of the role of a child advocate and covers everything from confidentiality to serving the best interests of the child.
“I will abide by the orders of the court and I will respect the confidentiality of all information or reports revealed to me unless entitled by law or authorized by court order,” Wilson read, while Conaway repeated.
“I will not communicate to any person anything I learn or obtain from any report or any record maintained,” she continued.
“I will faithfully protect and promote the best interest of each juvenile I represent until formally relieved of this responsibility by the court,” she said.
After taking the oath, Wilson again said he was grateful to have Conaway serving the children.
“We’re looking forward to having you involved in the cases hopefully very soon, I would imagine. Y’all do a wonderful job,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of abuse and neglect matters that have to be dealt with currently.”
And while Conaway admits her new role “…will be definitely a challenge,” she has a cadre of support at CASA of Marion County where Executive Director Shannon Hogue oversees the program. She said new child advocates undergo between 30 and 32 hours of training before being assigned a case in the courts.
“To have an extra person in [the child’s] corner to be able to advocate for them, I think is a really special thing to be able to provide and I love that we can do that. We don’t always have enough volunteers to do that, though. So, we’re extremely grateful when we get folks who are interested in being a CASA volunteer.”
“If you’re looking for something to give back to the community, it can be a very rewarding experience.”
To become a CASA of Marion County child advocate, go online at CASAofmarion.org or call the office at 304-366-4198.
Reach Eric Cravey at 304-367-2523.