Court Appointed Special Advocates of Northeast Tennessee (CASA NETN), based out of Johnson City, will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary as an independent, non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to giving a voice to the region's abused or neglected children within the Juvenile Court System.
CASA NETN will hold a special program on April 25 to honor the people who have been the driving force behind the community-based organization for the last decade, according to Leslie Dalton, Executive Director of CASA NETN.
"We will be celebrating [the anniversary] by recognizing volunteers," she said.
Dalton said that awards like "Volunteer of the Year" will be given out at the spring program to distinguish volunteer advocates who have gone above and beyond in preserving a child's right to a promising future.
CASA volunteers serve as official agents of the court and are trained, monitored and supported by the CASA NETN administration to ensure the rights of each abused or neglected child are upheld while the court finds safe, permanent living arrangements for them.
"Our goal is to help the court make sure [the children] are in a safe home as soon as possible," Dalton explained. Although it is the court system's main prerogative to find these children a safe, caring home, the task can be long and grueling, and having an advocate present to speak on behalf of that specific child's best interests and make suggestions to the judge can only expedite the process.
CASA, as a national entity, was founded in Seattle, Wash., in 1977 by a judge who saw a need in his community and felt trained volunteers could serve as informed advocates for children in court. When Congress passed the Victims of Child Abuse Act in 1990, CASA spread nationwide. According to the National CASA-CASA for Children website: Today, National CASA is a network of over 930 CASA programs - including CASA of Northeast Tennessee - which have been independently formed across the country.
Dalton said CASA NETN originally developed beneath the umbrella agency of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in 1985 when a one-time grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was allotted to the college for the purpose of establishing the organization.
In March 2003, the charter for CASA NETN to become an independent agency was drawn up and, in 2004, CASA NETN separated from ETSU and was established as a 501(c)3 non-profit program serving children in Greene, Unicoi and Washington counties, Dalton explained.
"We were serving 70 kids at the time and, then, last year [we served] 400," Dalton recounted. "We've grown quite a bit since ."
Over the last 10 years, CASA NETN volunteers have advocated for approximately 1,200 abused or neglected children in the courts of Northeast Tennessee, providing perhaps the only stability these children have yet known.
Dalton said a lot of times, the only consistent person in these children's lives are the CASA volunteers, so CASA NETN strives to keep the same individual on a child's case until home placement is finalized.
"Our hope is to have a volunteer advocate available for every [abused or neglected child]," Dalton said with conviction. In order to do that, "we need more volunteers and more funding. This echoes the National CASA goal as well."
CASA NETN is funded partially through the State of Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) which provides a total of $45,000 in grant money. This is divided into $15,000 for each of the three counties CASA NETN represents. On top of TCCY grants, CASA NETN requires an additional $100,000 every year to aid the at-risk children in the court system. Dalton said to fulfill this need, the initiative relies on other grants and community-based (business or individual) donations.
CASA NETN asks that for their 10th Anniversary the community step up to protect the future of the region's abused or neglected children either through volunteering as an advocate, donating privately or participating in one of their yearly fundraisers. These children are the future after all, and they deserve the best one they can have.
CASA of Northeast Tennessee is located at 603 E. Market Street in Johnson City. For more information on how to donate or volunteer, visit CASA NETN on Facebook, at their website at casanetn.org, or call 423-461-3500.