By Elizabeth Blackstock and Kara Dudas Bellone
Lafayette County, Mississippi is in the process of becoming home of Mississippi’s seventh program that aims to advocate for foster children within the court system through consistent support and intimate relationships. This helps to direct them away from issues that typically plague children in foster care such as juvenile delinquency, “aging out” of support programs and developmental problems.
“We try to bond with the child and be a consistent in their lives. We stress that we can advocate for the child in the support team meetings, as well as in court,” CASA volunteer Susan Scalise said.
“A CASA program is needed in every county in Mississippi,” said Erin Smith, founder and board president of CASA of Lafayette County. “It is an unfortunate thing that… only eight percent of Mississippi is supported by a CASA program.”
The newly established CASA program of Lafayette County is hosting an inaugural community breakfast on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at the Courtyard Marriott.
For Smith, the breakfast comes to fruition after almost a year of detailing bringing CASA to Lafayette County.
“It has been a long process. When you establish a nonprofit, you must recognize the time and effort it requires,” Smith said. “There are a lot of moving parts that go into establishing the program and often you will find that you can’t move to the next step without completing something else.”
Earning membership with CASA is an extensive, seven-step process. Currently, Lafayette County’s program has provisional membership.
Smith noted that this is part of the reason that CASA programs are not more common in Mississippi. The process requires a lot of time dealing with national CASA, the IRS and the Mississippi Secretary of State.
Even though Lafayette County is the home of northeast Mississippi’s first CASA program, it is not a non-profit foreign to the area. CASA is on-campus sorority Kappa Alpha Theta’s national philanthropy. In this way, Lafayette County is familiar with the organization and has an entire sorority chapter’s support.
The chapter’s philanthropy director, Holly Horton, recognizes this working relationship as an opportunity to expand what it means to be truly engaged with a non-profit organization.
“We are looking forward to working with them more closely and all the benefits they bring to our chapter and to Northern Mississippi,” Horton said. “We will be their first major donation after our fall philanthropy event, Theta Encore.”
Despite many of those involved being volunteers, CASA programs still need financial support. This is often done through community fundraising events like Theta Encore.
CASA volunteers work as complements to guardians ad-litem, persons appointed by the court to represent “the best interests of the child.”
“Every child needs someone to advocate for them. In Lafayette County, we have one guardians ad-litem and he oversees all cases that go through the courts here,” Smith said. That means that in 2016, the GAL single handedly covered 40 cases. “He is buried in work and can’t possibly give each case the time it needs and deserves.”
Although CASA workers are volunteers, the program is still essential to the court system and cases involving child welfare. Scalise has seen this firsthand.
“Sometimes caseworkers can’t work the extra hours needed,” Scalise said. “I only have one case at a time.”
The poverty rate in Mississippi also necessitates more CASA programs statewide. According the the USDA, 31.5 percent of Mississippi children ages zero-17 are living in poverty. In Lafayette County, that number is 20.2 percent.
Scalise noted that poverty is a risk factor for successful outcomes.
“But, once in the system, the families receive multiple services like individual counseling, kids’ counseling, therapeutic parent/child counseling,” Scalise said. “Kids get medical and dental checkups, and in home services are also available.”
While the idea of intervening the foster care process seems idealistic, it is often a sobering reality.
“You cannot be a ‘fixer.’ You have to be open minded that a child’s home may not be the way you would raise kids or keep house,” Scalise said. “The child just has to be safe.”