HANCOCK COUNTY — Diane Burklow couldn’t stand by and watch any longer.
It seemed like every day she heard another tale of a child who had fallen victim to a parent’s poor decision-making, drug addiction or crimes. She read the headlines in the newspaper, saw the mugshots flash across her TV, heard the whispers around town. A social worker by trade and a mother at heart, she wanted to do something to help.
So last June, she raised her right hand in front of a judge and swore to be a voice for those children who fall victim to abuse and neglect, to become a friend and confidant, to argue in their best interest.
And local stakeholders said they need more people to do the same.
The number of children on a waiting list for a Court-Appointed Special Advocate — a volunteer who can stand before a judge as the voice of a young victim — is continually increasing because of a rise in child abuse and neglect cases locally, officials said.
The Indiana Department of Child Services saw a nearly 30 percent increase in the child abuse and neglect cases filed in Hancock County between 2015 and 2016. Records show the department fielded 186 substantiated reports of neglect and sexual or physical abuse in 2015; the local number jumped to 241 last year.
State law requires a judge to assign a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, to every court case where a child’s well-being is at stake. The advocate serves as the eyes and ears of the judge, taking an in-depth look into a child’s life and then reporting back with a recommendation about what is best for the child going forward.
At the close of 2015, there were 51 local children on a wait-list to be partnered with an advocate. By the end of 2016, that number rose to 76, officials said.
Now, the list holds more than 90 names — and it’s growing every day, said Candice Hammond, who serves as a local coordinator of the CASA program.
The group needs at least 20 additional volunteers to deal the influx of cases, Hammond said. Those who sign up to help take on a daunting task, but it’s one that’s essential to keeping local children safe, she said.
Advocates become a listening ear to the child they’ve been assigned to help, Hammond said. They visit with the child at least once a month (cases typically last about 18 months) at home and school, and they meet with their family members and any professionals in the child’s life, including teachers, social workers and doctors. They have access to police reports, therapy notes and medical records — anything they might need to gain a better understand of a family’s history.
The advocate writes a report based on their findings that outlines a recommendation for the judge. Usually, the recommendation addresses where a child will live once the court case is closed. And if living with a biological parent is not the best option, advocates are encouraged to make that tough recommendation, said Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA.
The CASA program operates separately from the Department of Child Services, Craycraft said. Where its department leaders always aim to reunite a family, a CASA volunteer is not held to that standard. If an advocate believes a child would be better off in a different home, a new environment, they make that clear to the judge, even if that means going against the recommendations of DCS, she said.
As time passes and court cases carry on, children can develop an important bond with their advocate, said Terry Miller, a social worker at Weston Elementary School.
Miller regularly sits with CASA volunteers as they get to know the child they’ve been tasked with helping, and she has seen the connection, the trust and safety, children find in their advocate.
Often, advocates are the only ones who are able to see every aspect of a child’s life, she said. Kids don’t always share everything that happens at home with their teachers, and they don’t always tell parents or family members what’s happening at school; CASA volunteers get the whole perspective.
The recommendations they make to a judge can ensure that the difficult, sometimes traumatic, experiences children are often exposed easier to overcome, bettering their chances of healing, Miller said.
When there aren’t enough volunteers, children go to court without that extra voice, Hammond said. And in the hubbub of state agents and attorneys, of legal jargon and claims, a child’s wishes might be drowned out.
“It’s unfortunate,” Hammond said.
State CASA leaders have done what they can deal with the increase in cases in Hancock County, including adding more paid staffers to the local office, Craycraft said.
But there aren’t enough resources to go around because child abuse and neglect cases are up statewide. The Department of Child Services handled some 35,500 cases in 2016 — an increase of more than 5,800 from the year before — leaving the organization strapped, its staffers taking on more and more cases on their own.
That’s why volunteers like Burklow are so important, Craycraft said. When they step up to help, they reach out a hand to child who might not have anyone to hold onto in a time of great need.
For Burklow, that feeling has made all the tough days worth it, she said.
“It was more difficult for me not to do something,” she said.