Each year, thousands of children in this state are thrust into court through no fault of their own. Some are victims of violence, abuse or neglect, while others have even been abandoned by their own parents.
Last year, 6000 children were reportedly abused or neglected in New Mexico. About 126 substantiated cases were reported last year in Valencia County.
National figures show that more than 8000 children are abused or neglected each day in the United States alone.
By advocating for the child in their greatest time of need, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers help to support the best interests of the children involved in the court system. CASA’s vision is to ensure that every child has a safe, supportive and permanent home.
Marie Aberant, executive director of the Valencia County CASA program, said the volunteers who are appointed by the district court judges act as eyes and ears for the court.
“After spending time with the child and speaking with the social workers, the parents, the foster family and sometimes with the child’s teacher, the volunteer will make a written report to the judge and recommend special services that the child may need,” Aberant said. “They can recommend help for a family who can be reunited or for a foster care placement.”
There are currently nine CASA volunteers in Valencia County. Each volunteer handles a maximum of four cases at a time. Aberant said the volunteers will spend at least one year on a case trying to help find a permanent and safe home for the child.
“Our utmost concern is the child’s safety,” she said. “They deserve a permanent place to live so they can live a full life and be productive when they get older.”
Maureen Gilbert has been a CASA volunteer since April 1999. She says she gathers information and makes a lot of observations before she makes any recommendations to the court.
“We’re able to give the child and the case the time that it needs,” Gilbert said. “A lot of the time, an advocate is the only constant person in that child’s life.”
Aberant said kids who are forced into the system will go through an average of six different social workers and from one to four different foster care placements each year. If a child has a CASA volunteer, that child has a greater likelihood of spending less time in foster care and court and will have a better chance of being placed in a safe and permanent home.
“A lot of the times, the child just doesn’t understand why they ended up in the system,” Gilbert said. “You have to get a feel for what’s going on, and that may include removing the child from the crisis. We work towards reunification whenever possible, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.”
Gilbert said an effective CASA volunteer needs to sit down and build a rapport with the child before they can help. “They feel confused and angry because they’re not with their parents anymore,” she said. “They need to be reassured that they are going to be safe and there is going to be an end goal.”
Not every child who has been abused, neglected or who is in foster care is lucky enough to be paired with a CASA volunteer. Those who are get one-on-one attention from a volunteer who has committed themselves to help.
“Sometimes, our volunteers are the only ones who have time to listen to what the child wants,” Aberant says. “The social workers, by law and by their role, have to look at protection of the child and what’s in their best interests.
“We are incredibly fortunate in Valencia County to have probably the best group of social workers in the state,” she said. “They do a wonderful job, but they don’t have the time. The volunteer could let the social worker know if the child has a specific concern or need.”
The Valencia County CASA program is one of 15 in the New Mexico CASA Network. The National CASA Association is based in Washington D.C.
Aberant, who has been the executive director since January, said she is very interested in gaining community support for the local program and increasing the number of volunteers in Valencia County.
“My goal is to have 30 volunteers because of the number of cases adjudicated in this county,” she said. “Part of the goal is, as we take care of the current needs of the children of Valencia County and the new cases that are coming in, we can expand that and take in cases that are pre-existing and older and see if we can provide a different perspective there.”
Gilbert said that although it’s sometimes heart-wrenching and difficult to work with children who have been abused or neglected, there’s nothing more fulfilling than finding a child a home and a family who is going to love them.
“Every child wants to be safe in a home where they’re loved and they’re not going to be hurt any more,” Gilbert said. “They want to be part of a healthy loving family. We start with cases with a broken child, and, when you get them into a placement, they’re children who can accept love and accept the fact that they’re not at fault.”
To become a CASA volunteer or for addition information, contact Marie Aberant at 866-1646.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.