Advocate program eyed for abuse, neglect victims in Allegany County


From Staff ReportsCumberland Times-NewsThe Cumberland Times-NewsSat May 05, 2012, 10:50 PM EDT

— CUMBERLAND — There were 1,234 investigations of suspected child abuse and neglect in Allegany County in 2011, an average of 103 reports per month, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

The same report shows an average of 93 children were living in out-of-home placements during the year, having been removed from their homes as a result of abuse and neglect.

An average of three children were removed from their homes each month and placed in foster homes, group homes and other out-of-home placements.

A total of 61 children’s cases closed during 2011, with 15 children (25 percent) returning to their parents, 17 (23 percent) adopted and 20 (33 percent) placed with guardians. Nine youths (15 percent) “aged out” of foster care during the year.

“Children in Allegany, like all children under court protection in the state, are represented by attorneys who, in the majority of cases, are required to represent the child’s wishes,” said Zach Sparks, an intern with Lawrence, Howard & Associates, a public relations company that does publicity for Maryland’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program.

“CASA volunteers gather information through interviews with the child, biological parents, foster parents, teachers, social workers and other professionals involved in the child’s life, and make recommendations to the court that are based on the child’s best interests,” said Sparks.

Ed Kilcullen, state director of the Maryland CASA Association, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1997 to facilitate CASA programs, said his organization was contacted by citizens in Allegany County who would like to have a program in place there.

“Allegany County is one of only five counties in the state that does not have a CASA program. We want every child to have an opportunity to have an advocate. We hope to get the court’s support and move forward with the project there. The community is the local core that implements the program and we are there to help them,” said Kilcullen.

Kilcullen said he met with local agencies last December, including the Allegany County Juvenile Court Master, Department of Social Services Public Defender’s Office, Legal Aid Bureau and a steering committee in Allegany County that is working to initiate the CASA program.

For a CASA program to be implemented, it first needs the court’s approval and support.

“The court wants to make sure the program is sustainable and see that the steering committee has a plan in place to secure funds and the keep the program going long-term,” said Kilcullen.

The steering committee must also secure funding that will be able to cover operating expenses for office space, recruiting and training of volunteers and other costs that CASA programs typically incurring in its day-to-day operations.

Screened and fully-trained CASA volunteers gather information from all parties involved in a child’s case. That includes relatives, schools, social workers, attorneys and anyone else involved in the case.

The CASA volunteer makes a report to the court that includes recommendations for what is in the child’s best interest.

Attorneys involved in the cases typically advocate for the child’s wishes.

“CASA helps the court to make its decision based on the child’s best interest.

“The court typically meets every six months in a child’s case. The CASA volunteer stays on with the child during the life of the case. The average is two years for volunteers,” said Kilcullen.

According to Kilcullen, research shows when volunteers advocate for neglected children, the child spends less time in foster care, receives more services and has generally better outcomes in terms of permanent placement in a home.

“Our goal is to get these children in a safe and permanent home,” said Kilcullen.

Steering committee members for the local CASA initiative include Stephanie Caporale, Ginny Conrad, Aaron Hendrickson, Jade Bean, Erin Blanco, Wendy McKenzie and Rhiannon Morgret.

“As a social worker for over a decade before my transition into education, I became keenly aware of the effects that abuse and neglect have on children,” said Hendrickson.

“CASA is a program that helps to ensure that children have a voice in the court systems and someone who is an advocate for them. Often, social workers and other human services professionals are bogged down with immense case loads and just cannot devote the individualized attention to their cases as a CASA volunteer would be able to do. Having once been a social worker, I understand this, and saw how CASA can impact abused, ­neglected children, and give them a voice, on a more personal level.”

Contact Jeffrey Alderton at
jlalderton@times-news.com.