Court-appointed advocates give Augusta foster children a voice

Vickie Sheffield has not had to move often in her life, relocating only when she came to Augusta seven years ago with her husband and five adopted children in search of better jobs, nicer schools and a home closer to family.

As a former foster mother in her hometown of Dublin, Ga., she sometimes provided a child’s sixth or seventh temporary home, however.

For 12 years, as many as 90 children walked through her door, many mentally and physically abused by mothers or fathers who routinely failed drug tests or altogether abandoned them or refused to take parenting classes or counseling services.

“Some of them tried – they really did – but some of them didn’t care one way or the other, and in the end just kind of flubbed it,” Sheffield said. “You can’t tell me that’s good for any person, much less a child.”

Sheffield, now a 51-year-old grandmother, is one of seven volunteers whom Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Jennifer McKinzie swore in last week as Augusta’s newest class of court appointed special advocates.

The Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which started nationwide in January 1990, provides trained volunteers to bring individual attention, urgency and support to abused and neglected children in the foster care system, both in and out of the courtroom.

The volunteers collect independent information for an overburdened court system to offer recommendations on how to increase the juvenile justice system’s capacity by moving children from temporary foster homes to permanent families.

Augusta’s advocate program is one of 300 around the country. Last year, it served 281 foster care children as the only state- and nationally affiliated program of its kind in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

Today, 41 active volunteers provide 164 children an “objective advocate and adult voice, as they journey through the often insensitive court systems while awaiting decisions about where, and with whom, they may be living, either temporarily or permanently,” said the program director, Dawn Charleston-Green.

“I absolutely love it – I love the people,” said Sheffield, who heard of the program through her days in Dublin. “Everyone’s basic concern is the child.”

In preparing for the program, Sheffield and her fellow volunteers received more than 40 hours of specialized training to learn the skills necessary to advocate for children in court proceedings and assist in determining temporary and permanent placement for youths who have been deemed “deprived” by the juvenile justice system, Charleston-Green said.

Applicants must undergo state and federal criminal background checks, log hours in the court system and complete a volunteer manual that introduces them to juvenile laws and the different cultures, backgrounds and relationships they may face with children in the program.

“It’s been intensive, interesting, surprising, and at times, shocking,” newly trained volunteer Radisha Brown-Seabrook said of the training process. “But overall, it’s been encouraging to learn how you can help a child find some consistency in their life.”

Brown-Seabrook, 35, has a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and is a licensed social worker with the state of Georgia.

She has never worked exclusively with children; however, she said a hearing she witnessed last month in Richmond County Juvenile Court made her realize the advocacy program was a natural fit for her.

Brown-Seabrook, who was referred to the program by a friend, described the case as “heart-wrenching.”

A young girl had to stand in front of a judge while the child’s mother said she no longer had the energy or drive to be a parent and wanted to take some time to focus on rebuilding her life after a teenage pregnancy.

“You could see the pain in the child’s face and in the judge’s face, but throughout the process, her court-appointed advocate held her hand, hugged her and continued to say, ‘It’s going to be OK. We are going to work through this. This is not about you,’” Brown-Seabrook said. “That CASA worker was the girl’s strength. It blew me away.”

Charleston-Green said court-appointed advocates stay involved with each child until their case is closed, when the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. She said that for many abused children, their volunteer will be the one consistent adult presence – the one adult who is focused on their needs – possibly for years.

Adeline “Tracey” Washington, 68, is a retired colonel of the Army Nurse Corps and is going into her second year. She has three cases, one of which includes three children, ages 3 to 8.

As part of her advocacy, Washington met with each of her child’s teachers to describe their home situation and find ways to keep the youths focused on their school work.

Washington got the children enrolled in track and field, an extracurricular activity that helped the siblings become more fit and outgoing.

“It was just refreshing to get into a program where I could give back to the community,” said Washington, who adopted her son, now 23, from an abusive household and has worked in military youth groups.

Sheffield said she wishes more people would get involved in the program. Those interested can call (706) 737-4631 or visit ChildEnrichment.org for more information.

“If you truly love children and really want to help them, this is one way to do that,” Sheffield said. “Children need a voice, and with CASA, their wishes and concerns will be known.”

 

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