Houston County’s branch of the Alabama Court Appointed Special Advocates will soon expand to serve surrounding counties as a benefit of a $3.35 million grant the state organization received from the U.S. Justice Department.

CASA provides advocacy services for abused, abandoned, and neglected children in 20 Alabama counties, mostly in the northern region of the state. Executive Director Maggie Blaedow said the organization would like to expand and increase its presence in the South.

The Houston County branch is relatively new and started training volunteer advocates in January 2018.

“We don’t see many new programs start off and hit the ground running like the Wiregrass CASA has…” Blaedow said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job of recruiting volunteers and serving kids in the Houston County area.

As of last week, the Houston County team has recruited 55 volunteers and represented 186 children in court proceedings.

The continuation grant, which is administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, is funding 95% of the branch’s direct operating costs, like salaries for full-time staff, which is roughly $110,000 a year, and indirect operating costs like training material and general expenses. Part of the design of the grant is to expand Alabama CASA. The Wiregrass Region’s field office plans to expand its coverage to Dale, Henry, Geneva, and Coffee counties by the end of 2020 to become a regional county program.

“The Wiregrass branch shows what can happen when the state of Alabama invests in children,” Blaedow said.

Taylor Edwards, an advocate coordinator for CASA, says that volunteers go through mandatory 30 hours of training to become versed in court jargon and proceedings and interaction with abused children.

The advocate is referred to a case or sibling group and meets with the children at least once a month to conduct an independent investigation. Then, he or she makes a formal recommendation about a placement in their best interest to the judge in a report.

“They’re kind of their voice in the court system,” Edwards said. “Our goal is to advocate for all the juveniles in the system in the Wiregrass.”

It costs an average of $1,200 to provide a CASA volunteer to a child in Alabama. That cost includes support for the advocates, training costs, and background checks.

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