Volunteers for CASA serve as advocates for children in the court system. Contact Volunteers for Youth Justice to learn how you can become a volunteer.
In 1981, Carolyn W. Beaird, Marjorie B. Winkler, Lea Johnson, and Babs Roggero, members of Shreveport’s First Presbyterian Church, attended a seminar on youth justice in North Carolina and returned home determined to do something about the problem facing the Juvenile Court of Caddo Parish. The Court was overloaded with a significant number of youths who were initially arrested for minor offenses and who were “falling through the cracks,” later to became repeat offenders.
Along with their pastor, Dr. John Rogers, director of Christian education Suzette Kincer-Haley, and other women of the church, they provided the catalyst for the foundation of Volunteers for Youth Justice (VYJ), an organization dedicated to the elimination of this destructive cycle.
Today, VYJ, a local 501(c)3 organization based at First Presbyterian Church, 900 Jordan St., is partly funded by the city, the parish, and the state; however, tax-deductible contributions are necessary for this important community service to carry out its missions. There are 25 paid employees and 150 volunteers.
VYJ serves as an “umbrella” under which three main components operate:
The Court Programs deal exclusively with truancy problems and children who have been deemed by the parents to be ungovernable. After a child has been absent from school for five days, a referral is received by VYJ from the school board. A visit is arranged with the parents to see if they can work out a plan whereby the child is able to return to school. If that plan fails to achieve the desired results and the child continues to skip school, probation officers are assigned by the court. If the problem remains unsolved, the parents end up in the court system, where mandatory requirements are imposed.
The Youth Programs provide wholesome family-oriented activities of which so many children are deprived, such as the Community-Wide Easter Egg Hunt.
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) is the largest component of the local VYJ organization. Of the 150 VYJ volunteers, 120 of them are CASA and, according to director Vicki Ricord, there is a current urgent need for dozens more. Although there is only one Volunteers for Youth Justice, there are other youth assistance programs locally and there are state and national CASA programs.
While the VYJ/CASA program here covers six local parishes—Caddo, Bossier, Bienville, Jackson, Claiborne, and Webster – there are CASA programs in all but five of Louisiana’s parishes. The juvenile judge is responsible for requesting that a CASA chapter be established in his/her jurisdiction. All CASA programs work in conjunction with the Louisiana Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS).
To become a CASA, volunteers must undergo background checks, be over 21, and be willing to commit to at least one year of service. After training, the CASA volunteer is assigned abused and neglected children by the juvenile court system. The child is usually from a dysfunctional family and the CASA volunteer stays with the case throughout the process; the ultimate goal is restoration of the child to their parents. Although not an officer of the court, the CASA volunteer functions much like one, serving as a liaison between the court, the children, and the family (often involving three generations). The CASA volunteer documents progress made by the child, the foster parents, and the birth parents (often involving parenting classes, anger management courses, and drug rehabilitation). One of the most traumatic areas the CASA has to deal with is “aging out” when children are no longer eligible for court-directed foster care.
To learn what you can do, either as a volunteer or to contribute, visit www.vyjla.org.
By Chuck Lambert