Pr. William Court Appointed Special Advocates highlights plight of abused kids

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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prince William resident Ryan Miller didn't look too far to get the inspiration he needed to decorate a three-foot-tall paper doll at Manassas Christian School's summer camp Friday.

"It's me," the 10-year-old said, pointing to the doll, which had twisted yellow yarn for hair and a T-shirt covered with pictures of sports equipment. "He has the curly hair because that's what I get the most comments on. Every teacher who walks by me can't not play with my hair."

Ryan was just one of the many campers and area residents who spent the past few weeks decorating the dolls for the Prince William Court Appointed Special Advocates organization to display at its Sept. 11 fundraiser to raise awareness of the abused, neglected and abandoned children in the community.

Dubbed the "shadow children," the 400-plus dolls represent each child CASA helped last year in the Prince William County area, while their shadows represent the cases that have yet to surface, CASA Executive Director Charlyn Hasson-Brown said. Although this is CASA's 13th Evening Under the Stars fundraiser, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Loy E. Harris Pavilion, it is the first time the nonprofit group is using dolls to show the community how many children are in need of a court-appointed advocate.

"Helping abused and neglected kids makes me feel good because I'm not just thinking about myself," Ryan said. "The people were fun to make, and I feel bad for the [person] who has to keep track of all these for the event."

CASA, which has more than 900 programs nationwide, provides children who are neglected and abused with a volunteer advocate who serves as their voice in the courtroom.

Hasson-Brown said the number of children who need a court-appointed advocate is on the rise in Prince William. This fiscal year, which started in July, Hasson-Brown expects about 480 children will need an advocate, up almost 20 percent from last year, she said.

Because of privacy laws to protect the children, Hasson-Brown said, it is sometimes hard to raise awareness of the cases in the community. After seeing the national organization do a similar project and seeing the blank dolls available to purchase in a magazine, Hasson-Brown said she wanted to bring the idea to the county.

"Other charities can say, 'We built a house for Mr. And Mrs. Jones,' and then tell their story. . . . But I can't present the emotion here because I can't stick battered children up on the stage," she said. "You need to find a way for people to see, touch and feel the child abuse, and I hope this helps people better understand the problems we have."

The 400-plus dolls were given to business owners, artists, camp groups, school groups and others in the community with the help of Barbara Reese, domestic abuse awareness chairman for the Dominion Woman's Club, who took it upon herself to distribute and recollect the dolls.

Manassas Christian School Principal Linda Bare said she offered to have about 50 campers make 100 of the dolls. Armed with markers, yarn and multicolored fabric, the students made their dolls resemble everything: a princess, an ice skater, a businessman, a schoolgirl in uniform, themselves.

"I just wanted them to look happy, welcoming and joyful," Mariah Broderick, 10, a Manassas Christian School student, said of the dolls she decorated. "I'm glad we are helping people. I've had some bad experiences in my life, but it all worked out, and I want it to work out for them, too."

Hasson-Brown said the "shadow children" can be sponsored for $1,200 each, the cost of an advocate for a child for one year. The dolls will tour Prince William County after the fundraiser to raise awareness before heading home with their sponsors.

"I think the display of children will look great at the event because every one has its own character," Bare said. "They were really creative with what they did, and we think it's important for the kids to understand there are kids in the community who aren't as fortunate as they are."

Hasson-Brown said the county's CASA program began in 1994 and had about 124 advocates for the 400-plus children last year. Advocates, who are trained and sworn in by a judge, are only paired with children 18 and younger whose cases make it to court. They then not only speak for the children in the courtroom but also make visits to their homes and schools.

"This program is very good because then the children do have a voice, and it makes a big difference," Reese said. "With an organization like CASA, these kids have a chance they wouldn't otherwise have had, and that's important."

For information about the upcoming Sept. 11 fundraiser, call 703-330-8145 or visit http://www.casaofgpw.org.


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