Donika Morrow, who heads up CASA of the Tennessee Heartland’s efforts in Scott County, recalls a time when there was a single volunteer helping the agency provide services to three children in the local community.

Today, that number is exponentially higher: 12 volunteers are serving 54 children. 

If that number seems high, it is. But there’s a sobering reality attached to it: because of a lack of volunteers, CASA is serving fewer than half the children it otherwise could.

“When I ran quarterly reports at the end of December, we had 75 children in Scott County on a waiting list,” Morrow said. “We’ve been assigned more cases since. So we have more than 75 who are waiting.” 

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The agency’s purpose is exactly what its name suggests: it consists of volunteers, appointed by the court, to advocate in the best interest of a child that has been removed from the custody of his parents or who has otherwise had the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services intervene on his behalf.

With the proper training, advocates perform an independent investigation with the child’s interests placed first, then report back to the court so that a judge can make an informed decision on what will best impact the child.

Morrow said she’s happy to have the increased participation from volunteers. But, she added: “It’s still not enough. Unfortunately, it’ll probably never be enough.”

So why are there so many children who are in foster care or otherwise find themselves thrust into the court system? The answer, Morrow says bluntly, is drug abuse.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “Opioids are controlling our county right now. Unfortunately, opioids do not come with birth control inside of them, and you can’t parent effectively when you’re abusing drugs.”

Morrow said the crisis stems from good parents who got hooked — whether intentionally or not — on opioids.

“There is nothing wrong with these people other than they’re laid up, hooked on opioids,” she said. “It’s a messy cycle. We hear the stories from people who say, ‘I had my gallbladder taken out three years ago and got hooked on opioids.’ Then the opioids become harder to get so they turn to meth and heroin.” 

Morrow has a folder of pictures that she flips through. There is anonymity affixed to the images; privacy policies do not allow details to be affixed to the photos. But they all have one thing in common: they’re photos of filth inside homes where the children served by CASA once lived, before they were removed and placed into the custody of the state by DCS.

They’re photos of drug abuse, and they illustrate just how desperately many children in Scott County need caring adults to intervene on their behalf.

“The number of kids coming into foster care is just exponential, and it’s that way all across the state,” Morrow said as she flipped through the photos. “The service we provide is so important because our advocates only get one case at a time. A DCS caseworker might have 30 cases, and they’re spending 30 minutes a month with each kid. We’re going to spend as much time with that kid as they need. It’s so much more beneficial for a child to have a CASA for that purpose.”

Statistically speaking, a child who has a CASA working on his behalf will spend 50 percent less time in foster care than one who does not.

“We can give them that individualized attention and recommend services that otherwise could take months before someone realizes they need it,” Morrow said.

But the majority of the children who need the help and remain on the waiting list due to an insufficient number of volunteers are missing out.

“Those 75 kids are at a huge disadvantage,” Morrow said.

So how can the community help? Simply, by volunteering.

The only requirements to be a CASA volunteer are to be at least 21 years of age and have a clean background. Training is provided by CASA at no cost to the volunteer, after which the volunteer will be sworn in as an officer of the court.

From there, volunteers are assigned cases and go to bat for the kids.

“They pretty much perform an independent investigation aside from DCS, aside from anybody else,” Morrow said. “We talk to the child’s teachers, doctors, therapists, neighbors … anyone in that child’s life. We need to see what’s going on and what needs to change so they’re in a safe place as soon as possible.”

Once the leg work is complete, volunteers report their findings to the court. 

“It’s an unduplicated service,” Morrow said. “Nowhere else are you going to find a non-profit that’s going to be able to take an ordinary member of society and train them and get them sworn in, and have their opinion mean so much in someone’s life.”

On average, volunteers spend about 10 hours a month working on behalf of a child. It takes about a year for the case to go through the entire court process.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the work CASA volunteers do, Morrow said. Contrary to what is sometimes said, volunteers do not have to transport kids to court or to other appointments. Volunteers are not “big brothers” or “big sisters” and do not serve as a mentor for children. Nor do volunteers determine guilt or innocence in a dependency and neglect case. Ultimately, CASA volunteers are on a fact-finding mission, working as an independent third party on the child’s behalf. The judge decides what happens. 

“Volunteers are completely in control of the cases they work,” Morrow said. “It’s a small town, so you’ve got the ability to choose your case and not be assigned a child you go to church with or something like that.”

With enough help, there could be an advocate for every Scott County child in the foster care system. 

Without it, dozens of Scott County children whose lives have been turned upside down by the opioid epidemic and other factors don’t have that voice.

To volunteer or to receive more information, contact CASA of the Tennessee Heartland’s Huntsville office by calling 423-663-8943.