Since 2007, foster children in Lafourche Parish have had someone on their side, a dedicated group of volunteers working for CASA of Lafourche.
The organization is one of nearly 1,000 across the country that advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom. CASA of Lafourche became an independently operated, 501(c)(3) nonprofit CASA program in June 2007. It works specifically on foster care cases in the Louisiana 17th Judicial District Court and Thibodaux City Court.
Charley Elliott, who does outreach and social media for CASA of Lafourche, is especially passionate about its mission, for a very personal reason.
"I was in foster care as a child and I had a CASA volunteer," Elliott said. "It is because of CASA and my CASA advocate that I was adopted, found my forever home and didn't feel lost in the system. That's what CASA does.
Elliott's advocate was Belle Zars, who not only advocated for Elliott but went above and beyond the call of duty.
"What made her unique was that she was just a volunteer, but she kept coming even when I was in different foster homes," Elliott said. "I moved around to different homes and went to different schools, Ms. Belle was my constant in that time of my life. She would come over and we would draw, we would read, we would go to the park, stuff like that. She was really my friend during that time."
These days Elliott works to attract more people to CASA, and bring the sort of help she had in the difficult time of her childhood to more children in the parish.
"We have 50 volunteers serving about 80 kids," Elliott said. "We have new cases coming in and we need about 60 more (volunteers) to have every child in Lafourche Parish advocated for."
Each volunteer is expected to visit their charge a minimum of once per month, but more is optimal. One of the most important parts of being a child advocate is learning first-hand what sort of environment the child inhabits, so as to allow the system to more effectively deal with issues that may develop.
This is not legal advocacy. Volunteers do not function as or replace lawyers, but they deal closely with the legal system.
"They find out about the child's home life, their biological parents, their foster parents," Elliott said. "We investigate everything so that we can relate to the judge and paint a picture of the child's life. We're the eyes and ears for the judge, but we're also there for the child."
To inquire about becoming a CASA volunteer you can call the office at 446-6600 or visit its website casaoflafourche.org and click on the "volunteer" tab.
Staff Writer Scott Yoshonis can be reached at 850-1148 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Foster_Cajun.