One hundred thirty eight years ago, a little girl named Mary Ellen was carried into a New York City courtroom wrapped in a horse blanket. She was only 9 years old, but for the majority of her young life she had been beaten, cut, burned, and tortured. She had never been allowed outdoors and was often locked in a closet where she slept on a worn piece of carpet. Neighbors who heard this little girl screaming reached out to authorities for help, but the police could find no grounds to intervene because in 1874 our country lacked laws to protect children.So distressed was one social worker about Mary Ellen’s situation that she ultimately appealed to Henry Bergh, who was the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He believed, thankfully, that Mary Ellen was entitled to at least the same rights that our country already provided to animals, and he took up her cause. Mary Ellen’s case was heard in court, and her testimony helped to convict her abuser.
This case was reported in a number of newspapers in 1874, resulting in such a flood of reports of other children’s similar plights that Henry Bergh founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The events that followed forever changed the course of child protection in the United States. Mary Ellen’s story is generally regarded as the catalyst for our country’s enactment of child protection laws, which now are strong and still quite necessary. Even though our society is technologically savvy and has both strong educational institutions and laws, children in our country are still being physically and sexually abused, woefully neglected, or simply abandoned and left to fend for themselves. The children whose situations are most dire typically come to the attention of authorities. Our local Departments of Social Services are kept very busy providing services to many of these children and their families, and they seek court protection for those children who need it.
It is here that CASA enters the picture, helping to fill a need in the child welfare system by providing screened and trained Court Appointed Special Advocates to act solely on behalf of maltreated children. Also called CASA volunteers, each is an officer of the court who is required to bring crucial information to the judge or master about what is in their appointed child’s best interest. Because CASA volunteers typically have only one case, they have time to get to know their appointed child, time to learn everything possible about the child, and time to assess the child’s situation. The CASA concept, created by a judge in Seattle, Washington, is both brilliantly simple and simply brilliant – it absolutely empowers a community to look out for the best interest of its own children. National studies have shown that children with CASA volunteers have their needs identified sooner, and services to meet those needs are put into place much more quickly than for children without CASA volunteers.
Each child’s case is unique, but what these children share is a deep longing for someone to listen and to care about what happens to them. They want to be safe from harm, they wish for a forever family, and they long to have someone speaking on behalf of what they need. CASA volunteers care deeply about what happens to these children, devoting their time now with the fervent hope that this will help the children to grow into happy, healthy, and positive adult members of our communities. A child served by CASA summed it up beautifully when she said: “To give a child a CASA is to give them a voice. To give them a voice is to give them hope, and to give them hope is to give them the world.” As her words clearly indicate, the investment made by CASA can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.
Committed to helping vulnerable children in our community the United Fund has selected the local CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) organization as a member agency for its 2012-13 campaign year. CASA’s Executive Director, Robin Davenport, recently stated, “The United Fund’s endorsement of our program is crucial to our ability to serve all of the abused and neglected children in Talbot County who need a CASA volunteer by their side. We are extremely grateful that the United Fund is committed to supporting our work with the maltreated children in our community.”