Protecting children: A job for everyone

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 22, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Angela James, director of CASA, visits schools and homes across Adams County, advocating for children in abuse and neglect situations. CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, is a national network, but not every county is home to a CASA office.

NATCHEZ — Angela James does not believe in labeling children “good” or “bad.”
The Adams County Court Appointed Special Advocates director said all children are good, and sometimes the good simply needs to be highlighted.
The National CASA Association is a network of 1,000 program offices that are recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom and other settings. Adams County is home to one of the program offices.
“Our area is not large, but in 2010 CASA worked over 300 abuse and neglect cases,” James said. “Not all areas and counties have CASA, and Adams County is lucky to have a CASA program here.”
James said CASA works hand-in-hand with the Department of Human Services. She said CASA’s goal is to reach children who live in abuse and neglect situations across Adams County and find permanent homes for them.

CASA volunteer Kenyatta Sampson, the Rev. James Washington, volunteer Aletha Luss and James participated in the “pastor-nap” fundraiser. Pastors were taken into “custody” at the Natchez Grand Hotel, and parishioners raised bail to free them.

“It’s a big job, especially because you’re not always dealing with one child, but sometimes five or six children,” James said. “They are taken from their homes, and then taken from one another. Some foster homes take just girls or just boys, but we work as diligently as possible to not separate children.”
James said she is encouraged that for the most part, family members step up and take in children who are abused an neglected.
James was an educator in Natchez-Adams County and Concordia Parish schools. When the director position became available at CASA, a friend suggested she apply. She was offered the position after the second interview.
“I just have a passion for children with behavioral problems,” James said. “All children have problems, some children have a few more problems than others.”
James said the reward of the job exists with the heartbreak.
“All the cases are different,” James said. “I think the sexual abuse cases are more difficult than anything, but it’s rewarding at the same time, especially when children are placed in permanent homes.”
CASA is supported in part by community efforts. In April, the Natchez Fire Department organized a road block to raise money for the program, and CASA hosted a “pastor-nap” event. Local pastors were taken into custody and parishioners had to pay bail to have them released from “jail” at the Natchez Grand Hotel.
“(Those events) went great, and at least all the ministers made donations or were pastor-napped,” James said. “I was really happy with the participation.”
James said $4,969 was raised and 14 pastors participated in pastor-nap.
“That money goes toward travel, salaries and buying things children need who have been abused or neglected,” James said. She said grants fund some of CASA’s operations, which require matching funds on their end, so they raise those funds through community fundraisers.
James said the pastors who were involved in pastor-nap inspired her.
“You look at ministers as leaders in community,” James said. “They should set standard for other people. And it’s touching because they are interested in helping children they don’t actually know.
“Some of them expressed that they didn’t even know about CASA or what we do. Once I explained it, they got a better sense of what I did when I go into schools, homes and court on behalf of abused children.”
James said nine people are currently training to be CASA volunteers. She said volunteers are always needed, and background checks and 30 hours of training are required to become a volunteer.
Local law enforcement assists CASA by checking the sex offender registry, as well as criminal backgrounds, of potential volunteers. James said the volunteer interview process is rigorous, and potential volunteers are asked many personal questions.
Shannon Brown, lead teacher at West Primary School in Natchez, has seen children benefit from CASA services.
“We have a few students here at our school that fall under CASA,” Brown said.
She said James and CASA staff check on schools regularly.
“They ask if we have any concerns, and whenever I address concerns with them, it’s always dealt with,” Brown said. “We have children in bad situations that I’ve seen CASA help. They have worked very closely with me, and I have seen nothing but great results with CASA.”
Brown said she has been able to depend on James and CASA staff in the worst of circumstances.
“It will break your heart — these are just babies out here. We had a few shocking incidents. If we don’t make sure they are getting help, who will?”
James said CASA always needs and accepts donations.
To donate or seek more information about volunteering with CASA, call James at the Adams County Youth Court at 601-304-7863.

How to help:
CASA, a non-profit organization, needs financial donations and volunteers to operate year round
Mail checks or donations to Adams County CASA, 320 State St., Natchez, MS 39120 • Call 601-304-7863

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