By the first of the year, volunteers will join county social serviceworkers, police officers and juvenile court judges in the effort to help abused and neglected children.
Voices For Children, a private, non-profit organization, is training its first group of volunteers to serve as advocates for children in abuse and neglect cases that reach the court system.
Acting as an independent fact-finder, a court-appointed, trained volunteer will investigate and gather information on individual abusecases. Based on discussions with social workers, parents, family members, foster parents, teachers and the abused or neglected child, thevolunteer will make a recommendation to the judge about how the caseshould be resolved.
"The real beauty of the program is that each volunteer spends between three to five hours with a child, or on behalf of a child, on a weekly basis," said Janice Schwarz-Lantner, executive director of Voices For Children.
"It's a luxury that very dedicated people in the Department of Social Services and other aspects of the system can't afford with their large caseloads," Schwarz-Lantner said.
The Voices for Children program is not designed to duplicate the work of social workers or police officers. Volunteers will not do initial investigations to determine if abuse has occurred. Theirrole is to represent the child and gather all relevant facts to present an informed recommendation to a judge.
"It will be another pair of eyes, trying to determine what is in the best interest of the child," said Linda Zumbrun, an assistant director at the county's Department of Social Services. "The child will be the focus, the only client, as opposed to having to balance all kinds of other considerations."
Volunteers must pass a criminal background check and attend 30 hours of training with social workers, lawyers and therapists.
Included in the first group of volunteers are three attorneys, two semi-retired social workers,and three people with masters degrees.
Voices For Children is part of the nationwide Court Appointed Special Advocate organization or CASA, with 19,000 volunteers in47 states. The Howard County chapter is the fifth CASA program to open in the state.
Program financing includes a $25,000 state grant and donations from private organizations and citizens. The budget for three part-time employees is about $50,000.
Deborah Robinson, a lawyer in the Columbia office of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway and Goldman, led the effort to start a local CASA program because of the large increase in child abuse cases here, Schwarz-Lantner said.
Reported cases of physicaland sexual abuse and neglect of children in the county increased from 379 in 1987 to 699 last year. To date this year, there have been 727 reported child abuse and neglect cases, Zumbrun said.
The first CASA program was founded in 1977 by a juvenile court judge in Seattle, Wash., who felt that overworked social workers couldn't provide himwith enough information to decide child custody cases. He asked citizens from the community to work with public agencies to investigate cases and provide an objective report based on their research.
A child advocate's involvement in a case usually begins by contacting thesocial worker and reviewing the case file to learn about the child'sbackground. Then the volunteer tries to develop a relationship with the child and interview all people connected with the child.
In a summary of cases written by child advocates in Montgomery County, volunteers write of taking their CASA children to the library, the zoo or a museum. Their activities include discussions with therapists and teachers, and making detailed observations of the child's living arrangements.
County juvenile court masters say the Voices for Children program could be particularly useful in providing another objectiveperspective on a case and making sure that court orders are followed.
"What they will be is another witness in the case and obviously the court likes to have as much independent witness input as possible," said Bernard Raum, a county master for domestic relations.
Raumexpects that advocates will be most involved in cases where the court finds that an abused or neglected child should remain in the home while parents undergo counseling.
"We have people who come in and say they're going to behave themselves and they don't," Raum said. "It's a terrible burden to place on a social worker to have to go out continually on a daily basis, whereas a volunteer might be able to do that more regularly or fill in the gaps when social workers aren't there."
For information about becoming a Voices For Children volunteer, call 740-0933.