For most people, home is a place of refuge, a sanctuary where we embrace our loved ones and go to sleep knowing we’re safe. But for too many children, home is a confusing and lonely place where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect are everyday realities.
The statistics are terrifying: one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Thirty to 40 percent of these children are abused by a family member, and 60 percent are abused by someone the family trusts.
April 1 marks the first day of National Child Abuse Prevention Month; today and each day forward we can help ensure that children are protected and heard.
Leading the way is the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association and its state and local members. Since the program began in 1977, CASA volunteers have helped more than 2 million abused and neglected children across the country. The volunteers are on hand to advocate for the best interest of each child, to be a constant when consistency feels obsolete, and to make sure children do not disappear in the legal and foster care systems.
For more than 20 years, Renee Battafarano, the Executive Director of CASA in Mahoning County, Ohio, has been leading CASA volunteers on the mission to protect and advocate for children. “The goal of CASA is to not only provide safety but to provide a permanent placement for children so they know where they are going to lay their head down at night," she says. "Many kids don’t know the answer to this. They can leave for school from one place and be picked up at school and have to go somewhere else.”
CASA volunteers are involved in every aspect of a child’s life, from representing the child in court to speaking with his or her teachers, psychologists, and social workers and doing background checks on potential guardians. Most importantly, they build a trusting relationship with the child. “The child knows their foster parents may change, their caseworker may change, but they see that one familiar face that follows them no matter where they go," Battafarano says. "They begin to realize, 'This person really cares about me.'”
Nationwide, more than 68,000 CASA volunteers served more than 240,000 abused and neglected children last year. Battafarano is working toward “one day having a volunteer advocate for every child that needs one.”
According to Battafarano, the legal system is not set up to benefit children. If a CASA volunteer is not appointed to the case, there may be no one in court advocating for the child. “The social worker is there advocating for family reunification. The lawyer is advocating for Mom. The attorney could be advocating for Grandma or for Dad, but no one is there advocating for the child. No one at all.”
Battafarano has ideas about ways we can all help put a stop to child abuse during National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and every month thereafter: “We have to get over the fear of butting in. When you see children who are being hit by their parents in a public place, [ask yourself] if they are going to hit them in public, what are they doing in private? If they are screaming at them in public, what are they doing in private? We’ve had CASAs that followed people home from the mall because they saw how they behaved and they wanted their address. You just have to get a backbone and think of that child.” The bottom line? “You need to use your gut instinct and you need to tell somebody.”
There are many ways to advocate for children’s welfare, and as Battafarano says, “CASA shows that a grassroots effort for children can work if you do it because you have that passion and goodness in your heart.”