The recent eighth annual Lakeway Court Appointed Special Advocates fundraising banquet continued its tradition of providing crucial community information, this year to its largest crowd.
The event celebrates the efforts of local court appointed special advocates, all volunteers, while detailing the needs of the children they serve.
“If you’ve never been to juvenile court, be grateful,” an emotional Hamblen County Juvenile Judge Janice Snider told the crowd at First Presbyterian Church in Morristown before addressing the CASAs present, saying, “We could not do this without you.”
Snider reported that meth is still a predominant reason behind children appearing in her court.
“The opioid epidemic of Tennessee has virtually passed us by, except for suboxone which in time everyone will come to learn is the new opioid epidemic. But meth is here to stay. And it’s rampant. And in almost every removal that DCS has brought me over the past year, I would say that in 95 percent of those cases there is meth involved, directly or indirectly,” Snider said.
In 2019, over 1,700 children past through Hamblen County Juvenile Court, a fair number, Snider said, that were delinquent, or truants or private custody cases or child support. Last year, there were 212 cases where DCS came in and removed children from their parents. An estimated 100 cases that were privately filed, where predominantly grandparents were seeking custody of children based on neglect or abuse.
“Right now, in Hamblen County, we have 136 children presently in state custody,” Snider said. “During 2019, there were probably 100 to 150 children who were placed with relatives or friends or other individuals who were caring for these children without any form of financial assistance from the state, or only nominal child support, if they could get it, of $10 from the parents,” Snider said.
Across the Smoky Mountain region, which includes Hamblen and six contiguous counties, there are currently 928 children presently in foster care or state institutions. Of this number 336 of these children have been in state custody for 15 months or more.
“One child in Hamblen County has been in state custody for over 2,315 days,” Snider said. “He breaks my heart. He’s a young man that suffered a lot of trauma in his family and he has a lot of problems. And nobody seems to want him. He’s been in a treatment facility for years.”
Through the partnership of the judge and a volunteer CASA, the young man has been moved to a residential program and is receiving the services to help him eventually transition to being on his own when he turns 18.
“Our increased efforts to help and rehabilitate parents and delinquent children are showing positive results,” Snider said. “Out of the entire region, Hamblen County has highest percentage of parents and children who have achieve the goals and steps necessary for reunification of their family, allowing these children to be returned to a parent. We have the highest rate in the whole region of success stories. Even meth parents have been able to get clean and rehabilitate themselves.”
CASAs oversee their cases to be sure that necessary services are provided to children and their families. CASAs attend meetings, court hearings and sometimes long days in court, providing valuable information to the court.
“CASAs spend quality time with the children assigned to them and this is one of the most important things they do and they often build close bonds with these children and sometimes with their families. Our CASAs are strong advocates for the rights of these children, in and outside of the courtroom. But one of the most important roles a CASA plays is being a steadfast, trustworthy friend that this child, who has been jerked from their surroundings and is afraid, they realize they have this steadfast, trustworthy friend who they trust will be by their side,” Snider said.
After providing examples of success stories that have been the result of CASA’s efforts, Snider said, “I want you to remember these four words: love, support, advocacy and empowerment; these are the priceless gifts that CASAs give to children and their families who are often overwhelmed by life and circumstances.
Also providing a personal advocacy story was keynote speaker Gene Whaley, executive director of Operation Inasmuch.
He shared his ACES score, a 7, with the audience. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Score ranges from 1 to 10, a higher score indicating the child involved will probably face multitudes of challenges as adults, ranging from chronic health issues, to insobriety, to economic instability.
“How well my story, my life, my experiences fit with this mission,” Whaley said, adding he was a child of divorce, physical domestic abuse – “there was blood spilled; it wasn’t pretty,” he said, – prolonged mental illness (his mother and sister, both now deceased) and more physical abusive by an adult, his mother’s husband, who committed suicide in the family home after a particularly violent attack on her.
“I literally was the only normal person in my world, it was lonely,” Whaley said. “Going to school was my refuge.”
Whaley received two square meals at school and met positive people. He was polite in public settings, but was a very angry child at home.
“I was enraged,” Whaley said. “I blamed my mom and my sister that my life wasn’t like everyone else’s at school.”
Whaley said the ‘but’ in his story is directly related to advocates in his life.
“It’s easy to throw our hands up and say how do we handle these things?’ I think you do it by just getting involved in someone’s life, becoming an advocate,” Whaley said. “God made sure in my life to surround me with advocates: friends, teachers, pastors, mentors and ‘disciplers’ (including Gary Moss at the Boys & Girls Club; John Seals, Bobby Davis, Rudy Abate, Joe Ely and the entire Seals family). They lifted me up and encouraged me … There are very impactful moments you can draw from,” Whaley said.
At age 15, he gave his life to Christ ¬– “My life changed forever that year,” Whaley said. Christian friends, like Justin Graham, now pastor of The Avenue church, whose family allowed Whaley to live with them for a period of time, provided support during high school. He met his wife, Abby (the couple now has six children) during high school.
“These things no longer impacted my life. The negative statistics could no longer outweigh all these advocates in my life. These advocates showed me how to take all that negative stuff and use it for good,” Whaley said.
“That’s why CASA is so important. These advocates have an opportunity to make a lifelong impact on a child’s life, a family’s life. Our future prosperity in any society really depends on the ability to foster the health and the well-being of the next generation. The next generation will then pay back through a lifetime of productivity, of service and responsible citizenship. We are supporting communities for generations to come,” Whaley said.
The fundraiser is a free event, featuring a buffet dinner and information sharing about ongoing efforts for children who have, through no fault of their own, have a case pending in the juvenile court system to determine the safest, most permanent place for them to live.
The 2020 event featured live music by High Lonesome Senate, the WSCC bluegrass band; Tony Miksa, president of Walters State Community College and Lakeway CASA board chairman, served as emcee.
A new program was introduced: HABIT (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee), featuring ‘Sophie,’ a dog who is in training to provide comfort services to children CASAs serve.
CASAs are appointed by juvenile judges and their work provides early research, a fact-based written report to assist the judge make a fully informed decision when ruling in a child’s case.
“I’m proud to say that we serve a tremendous community need by utilizing community members to put their knowledge and compassion to work for helping children who have previously been hurt, let down and silenced by the adults who are supposed to be taking care of them. CASAs are often the only constant adults in the child’s life as they go through the child welfare system. The average length of our involvement is 12 months and many times longer,” CASA Executive Director Kelley Williams said.
“At the end of 2019, we completed the largest volunteer trainings to date; we had 10 new advocates that received high-quality and specialized training that will allow them to serve the best interest of their CASA child. Currently, we are serving 134 children and sadly, more children are in our court system. While we are proud of the increase in volunteers, it does come at a cost. Our staff is stretched to its limits supporting these wonderful volunteers,” Williams said.