An adult advocate sitting on a bench with a young female child

Henrico CASA: Children deserve advocates (and playhouses)

Between 2019 and 2020, there were approximately 34,000 reports of children who were alleged victims of child abuse and neglect – right here in Virginia. Let that sink in.

Those numbers only go into the first couple months of the pandemic. Much higher numbers are expected for 2020-2021, even as reporting in this area is typically below actual incidents.

Henrico Court Appointed Special Advocate, or Henrico CASA, advocates for children where abuse, neglect or trauma allegations have occurred. Trained CASA volunteers serve as the child’s representative (i.e. advocate) as their case goes through the juvenile court system in Henrico.

April is Child Abuse and Neglect prevention month as we’ve mentioned in our story about Greater Richmond SCAN. We wanted to highlight another critical nonprofit that is at work every day helping to make our community a safer place for children.

CASA’s history

The national CASA organization started in Seattle in 1977, the brainchild of a juvenile court judge, David W. Soukup, who believed he didn’t have sufficient information to rule in a young girl’s case where allegations of abuse and neglect were confounding.

After a seed of concern grew in the judge’s mind, he devised a straightforward solution, a structure where community volunteers would serve as advocates for children, ensuring that their best interests were top of mind throughout the legal process. After all, parents in these cases could not always be counted on to look out for their children’s wellbeing. Advocates would observe the children in their environments, gaining a 360-degree understanding as to the child’s circumstances and reporting back their findings to juvenile judges.

Today, there are over 950 CASA programs across the country with 27 programs in Virginia. Henrico County has the largest chapter in Virginia, serving about 400 kids each year. 

A group of advocates, with the camera focusing on a front row of eight females, raise their right hands at a swearing in ceremony for Henrico CASA.
Volunteers raise their hands at a swearing in ceremony for Henrico CASA advocates

How it works

Henrico CASA helps the juvenile and child welfare system make informed decisions in cases of child abuse and neglect, all the while maintaining their independence from the system. The decisions may affect virtually every aspect of a child’s future: where they will live and what services they will need to help them deal with the trauma they’ve experienced.

First, Henrico CASA is appointed to a case by one of the judges in the juvenile and domestic relations court (there are five in Henrico) following an allegation of child abuse or neglect. Anyone can request Henrico CASA’s involvement in a case, whether it be family members, attorneys, social services, etc – but CASA must be appointed by a judge.

Advocates are considered unbiased observers. One volunteer advocate is assigned to one child or sibling group with weekly visits to gain a full understanding of the situation with input from teachers, family, therapists, attorneys and social workers on the case. Then, at every hearing for the child, reports written by the advocates are submitted to the judge and includes sources, conversations, observations and factual information that outline recommendations for the child. In Henrico, 99% of the recommendations considered by the court are accepted.

Last fiscal year, Henrico CASA had 113 volunteers who served 401 children, who volunteered more than 13,500 hours and contacted more than 30,100 sources.

Physically distanced, not socially distanced

Headshot of Jeannine Panzera, the executive director of Henrico CASA.
Jeannine Panzera, executive director

With March 2020 as the start of lockdown, Jeannine Panzera, executive director of Henrico CASA, grew nervous and continues to be to this day about the increased isolation for children.

“When the media was prompting ‘stay at home, you’re safe at home,’ this was concerning because we knew that there were people and children that were not safe at home,’” said Panzera. “And while necessary to help slow the spread of this virus, an unintended consequence of social distancing was separation from important social supports. We know that social supports are important protective factors for families who experience mental health and substance abuse challenges, are in domestic violence relationships, or have a history of abuse or neglect.”

Since schools weren’t in person, reports of child abuse decreased dramatically. As mandated reporters, school administrators and teachers have some of the highest rates of reports to Child Protective Services given the fact that they see kids every day in their classrooms. And as with teachers, counselors and doctors also were not able to see students regularly, either.

Because stress is one of the main factors that increases the likelihood of abuse and neglect, it was widely anticipated that the pandemic would spawn higher case numbers, but without teachers to observe student behaviors that are signs of abuse and neglect, the impact of the pandemic may not be readily evident in quantifiable cases.  

Panzera is expecting significant increases in cases once students go back in school fulltime. During the last year of the pandemic, Henrico CASA served a record number of children in its 27-year history.

Many professionals in the human services field have begun using the term, “shadow pandemics,” which is what is believed will be seen after the COVID-19 pandemic reaches the end. Vulnerable populations have been significantly affected by the pandemic and will continue far after with challenges in education, mental health, substance use, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Child abuse has a wider impact, beyond children themselves

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated for many, many years that child abuse and neglect is an epidemic in our country,” Panzera said. “It costs us way too much, not only in terms of the day-to-day costs, but the long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect.”

Beyond the collective societal costs, the trauma stemming from abuse and neglect affects children for the rest of their lives. According to an adverse childhood experiences study, there’s a direct correlation between child abuse and neglect and adverse health challenges.

“During the first four to five years of life, 90% of a child’s brain develops through experiences of the child by emotional content, attachment and bonding,” Panzera said. “At any age, abuse and neglect is a problem, but when we have children who are experiencing abuse and neglect at such a young age, it can actually change the physiological design of their brain.”

Panzera wants people to understand that investing in programs like CASA that work to educate the community on child abuse and neglect, and its prevention, can lead to decreasing financial costs for our region and nation. Investing in these programs will help diminish the significant impact on the criminal justice, health care, and educational systems that can be directly attributed to childhood abuse and neglect.

Home for Good event

Henrico CASA’s inaugural ‘Home for Good’ event is currently underway at Short Pump Town Center until May 2. Three local Henrico builders have donated their time and constructed three beautiful and luxurious playhouses for Henrico CASA.

Displayed at the mall and online, you can enter to win by making a $5 donation online or in person. Each $5 donation is another chance to win and there is no limit to the number of donations a person can make. The drawing will take place on May 3.

“When I think of playhouses, it invokes this image of carefree and happiness with a child running around,” Panzera said. “That’s a reminder of what childhood should be. It shouldn’t be abusive, neglectful or traumatic.”

Donations will go directly to Henrico CASA to help recruit, screen, train and supervise its advocates.

To learn more about Henrico CASA, visit its website, or follow it on Facebook and Instagram. You can also donate directly to the organization here.

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