In Indiana, a child must be proven to be severely endangered to be considered a case of child abuse. But despite the stringent requirements, Monroe County CASA fields an overwhelming caseload each year.
The program processed 354 cases of child abuse in 2015. But in 2017 alone, Monroe County CASA has already overseen 590 cases – and it’s only half way through the year.
Monroe County CASA is a 35-year-old program that trains and supervises volunteers as they work with children who have been victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect.
Volunteers are called CASAs – court appointed special advocates. They act as an advocate for the child as they work their way through the court system and encounter the many foster parents, child service workers, lawyers and therapists involved in delivering the child to a safe, permanent home.
CASAs frequently follow a case for one to two years. With so many people constantly revolving in and out of their lives, the children need someone like a CASA to be a steady figure.
“That person from CASA can be the person [the kids] know will always be with them,” said Amber Shride, the resource development coordinator for Monroe County CASA.
Monroe County CASA will advocate for children up to 18 years old. But Kristin Bishay, the director of Monroe County CASA, said the majority are much younger. More than 50 percent of Monroe County CASA cases are for children five years and younger.
And Monroe County CASA’s case load is growing. There are currently over 100 children waiting for an advocate.
Kristin Bishay, the director of Monroe County CASA, sees a correlation between Monroe County CASA’s increased number of cases and the opioid epidemic.
Substance abuse, she said, creates an extreme situation of neglect. 10 years ago, about 70 percent of cases were substance abuse related. Now, the number is closer to 99 percent, she said.
Bishay sees the children involved in substance abuse-related cases as invisible victims of the opioid epidemic.
“When newspapers and TV talk about the [opioid] epidemic, they never talk about the effects on children,” she said. “We’re finding these needles in these homes, but people aren’t told this.”
Making matters even worse, Bishay said, is Indiana’s legislation on child abuse.
According to Bishay, Indiana has the highest threshold in the country for a case to be considered child abuse. Subsequently, Indiana has a higher number of deaths of child abuse and a higher number of children in the welfare system than in other states.
Bishay acknowledges child abuse is a difficult subject for people to talk about it. But, she said, addressing the problem head-on is key to improving conditions.
“If they were more aware, people would talk about it more, they might intervene earlier,” she said. “They might demand funds and support earlier.”
In the meantime, CASAs are key to delivering children to permanent safety as quickly as possible. Although working as a CASA is a emotional, difficult work – Bishay said it’s not uncommon for people to call her at 10 PM agonizing over a case – it’s rewarding work for the volunteers.
“I think people want to make a difference for the kids,” Shride said. “They want to help someone who can’t help themselves.”
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