One of my favorite fall sounds comes from the school playground a block from my house. If I am lucky enough to be home during recess, I hear the laughter of dozens of children — unfiltered joy filling the autumn breeze. This inspiring sound is being heard in neighborhoods across Montana as another school year begins. We hope each child is returning rejuvenated and eager to learn, with new school clothes and a backpack containing freshly sharpened pencils and a healthy lunch. Sadly, it is far from the truth for many Montana children who are coming back to school hungry, frightened and hurting.
Each year, hundreds of cases are filed in Montana courts to protect children from abuse and neglect. The courts intervene in a family’s situation when a parent or other person has subjected the child to physical or psychological harm or has failed to provide for the child’s basic necessities, such as adequate nutrition, protective shelter, or safety from unreasonable physical or psychological risk. The law aims to protect these children and to ensure they have a healthy and safe permanent home. The law’s first goal is to preserve the family unit and to achieve a child’s safe placement with his or her family. When efforts do not succeed to help a parent or guardian achieve necessary skills to provide for the child’s health and safety, foster families and group homes step in. Ultimately, if the child cannot be returned home, the goal of the law is adoption by a family who will offer a safe and nurturing environment in which the child will flourish.
The number of abuse and neglect cases filed in Montana courts is growing at an alarming pace. In 2009, 1,006 abuse and neglect cases were filed across Montana. In 2012, that number climbed to 1,491—a roughly 50 percent increase. In Hill County, there were 65 cases in 2012. Now, at any given time, there are about 2,000 kids in foster care in Montana. While there are many reasons for the increase, and many causes for the problems families face, there is no single answer. Each child’s case must proceed through the courts, a process that allows parents time and provides the services to help them get back on track. However, the first priority is to keep the child free from abuse and neglect.
The judges who decide these difficult cases often rely on Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers to provide important independent information in the case. CASA volunteers are appointed by the judge to watch over and advocate for the child’s best interest. CASA volunteers go through an extensive training process and spend time learning about the child, the child’s family circumstances, any special needs the child has and the options available to restore safety and security to the child’s life. Studies show that CASA volunteers are highly effective in helping abused and neglected children and in bringing cases to a timely resolution. Last year, CASA volunteers spent more than 40,800 hours in service to Montana kids. Currently, CASA volunteers are serving over 1,542 children in Montana.
But more help is needed. You could make a difference in a child’s life by volunteering for CASA today. Many of Montana’s 15 CASA programs are about to begin fall training programs. Fall is a time of transition to a new season, and a good time to take action to help a child. No minimum educational requirements apply.
Contact your local CASA office today at 406-265-6743 ext 1135 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Every child deserves a safe and healthy home.
(Beth Baker is a justice on the Montana Supreme Court.)