Advocates push for more child abuse awareness

By William Thompson

An official with the Curry and Roosevelt County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children told commissioners there are currently “more than 44 children” placed in foster care who have been neglected or abused by their parents or primary caregivers in Roosevelt County.

Marsha Gilliland, executive director for the Ninth Judicial District’s Family and Children’s Court Services, which oversees CASA, said eight percent of those children suffered sexual abuse, 13 percent suffered from physical abuse and the rest experienced general neglect at the hands of their parent or primary caregiver.

“General neglect is when the parents don’t have utilities in the home or they don’t have enough food. Many of those parents have either substance abuse issues, anger issues or domestic violence issues,” Gilliland said. “It is neglect when basic needs of the child are not met.”

Gilliland said CASA volunteers are court-appointed sworn officers of the court who receive 30 hours of training each year. She said the typical CASA volunteer is assigned a case by the court and meets with convicted abusive parents and the abused children.

The CASA volunteer ultimately makes a recommendation to a district judge whether the abused children should be reunited with their parents or put up for adoption. Permanent foster care is sometimes the only option.

“To become a volunteer, first we conduct a personal interview with you,” Gilliland said. “You are required to undergo a criminal background check and a Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) background check. You would then undergo 30 hours of training in understanding children and families, reporting and interviewing techniques and court observations.”

Lavonn Guthals is a CASA volunteer in Clovis. She said the primary goal is always to reunite the abused child with his or her biological family. She gave an example of a girl she has helped.

“I visit with the child at her school, at her foster home and at other outside activities. I try to build trust with her. I also visit with the biological parents or primary caregivers,” Guthals said. “Most children are sad to be out of their homes. The primary goal is reunification with the parents but if that’s not possible you have to move on.”

In addition, Guthals said she pores over court records and talks with psychologists and social workers who have been involved in a particular case so she can have a plenty of information at hand when she goes before the judge with her recommendation.

Guthals said most recommendations are made in court within a year of the conviction of the abusive parents or caregivers. Gilliland said the decision as to where the child will be placed is entirely up to the district judge.

At a meeting of Roosevelt County commissioners Tuesday a special proclamation was approved designating April 2006 as “Child Abuse Awareness/Prevention Month.

To raise community awareness of Child Abuse Awareness/Prevention Month, CASA volunteers in Curry and Roosevelt County have scheduled special “Light of Hope” candle-lighting ceremonies.

In Portales a candle-lighting event is scheduled for noon April 10 at the Memorial Building. A similar event in Clovis is scheduled for Noon April 14 at the Clovis Chamber of Commerce.

To become a volunteer or to make donations to CASA, call 769-3227 or 769-2656.

To report child abuse or neglect, call CYFD at 1-800-797-3260.