A former prosecutor in Prince George's County, lawyer Leo Jones of Greenbelt has seen what abuse and neglect can do to a child. He has seen what happens to boys and girls when they are abruptly pulled from their homes and entered into "the system."
It's not a pretty picture, Jones said. Often, the children are being shifted from one foster home to another. In some cases, they return to the custody of the very people who neglected or physically and emotionally abused them.
It is for those reasons, Jones said, that he decided to help relaunch a local chapter of the Seattle-based Court Appointed Special Advocate program. "A child who has been abused or neglected needs someone to speak up for him," said Jones, chairman of the committee working to start the CASA chapter. "CASA is that someone."
Established 22 years ago as a way to ensure the well-being of foster children, a CASA chapter in Prince George's was formed in 1992. A lack of funding forced it to shut down in 1995.
But while the program lacked money, it did not lack participants.
On any given day, 1,849 children will be abused or neglected in the United States.
According to CASA officials, more than 1,200 children come to the attention of Prince George's officials each year as a result of abuse or neglect. There are more than 800 county children living in so-called temporary foster homes. In the state, only Baltimore has more children in foster care.
Just as disturbing is the fact that county children in foster homes tend to spend an average of three years in them, which is much longer than the 18 months that advocates say children should spend in temporary settings.
Statewide, about 13,000 children, a figure that has nearly doubled since 1990, live in foster care or residential institutions because of abuse or neglect.
"Our goal is to be advocates for these children," said Ed Kilcullen, director of the Maryland CASA Association, a group that supports and helps with the startup of state chapters. "We want to make sure they are in a loving, stable home," he said. That home, he said, could be with the child's family or in a nurturing adoptive household.
That's where CASA comes in. Organizers of the new Prince George's chapter are seeking volunteers and trying to raise $150,000, "enough funding for the first two years so that we are not working hand to mouth," Jones said.
In coming months, organizers will solicit donations, hold fund-raisers and seek matching funds from Maryland's administrative office of the courts.
Jones said the goal is to have the Prince George's chapter up and running by July 1.
The CASA program was started by a Seattle superior court judge who wanted to make sure he, and other judges, were making the best decisions for abused and neglected children. Over time, the program expanded.
Today, there are dozens of chapters across the country, including those in Baltimore as well as in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, St. Mary's and Talbot counties in Maryland. The District of Columbia also has a chapter.
In the program, adults volunteer to follow the case of a child or siblings who have been removed from their homes by gathering background information about their situations and sharing it with social workers, judges and lawyers assigned to the cases.
CASA organizers say that enlisting volunteers helps ease the pressure on social workers, who often have to juggle multiple foster care cases at one time.
Kilcullen said studies have shown that CASA has had a positive effect on the outcome of foster child cases, many of which result in permanent placings of children.
That's encouraging, said organizers of the Prince George's CASA effort.
Nancy Pineles, a lawyer who used to work in the Prince George's child advocacy bureau, already has volunteered to do what she can, in part because of what she saw in her former job. She recalled working on and hearing about cases involving the sexual abuse of children and others in which very young children were being left alone. Other cases involved teenagers being kicked out of the home.
"The decisions that have to be made about these children are more complex than people realize," said Pineles, who now works on consumer protection cases for the Federal Trade Commission. "We're talking about extreme cases of neglect where, for example, parents are not able to provide the basic needs of the child."
The business of placing and caring for foster children is complex, Pineles said, because it may involve a number of difficult factors, including mental illness and violent tendencies in parents and fierce arguments among family members about who should assume custody of a child when the primary caregiver is unable to fulfill that role.
"Even deciding whether a child should be in a foster home or a residential setting is a tough decision," said Pineles, who lives in Montgomery County. "That's why we need the CASA program. The social workers and the lawyers can't do it all."
They won't have to if people like Nan Hawkins of Oxon Hill keep coming forward.
Hawkins, a retired civilian with the D.C. police, heard a radio advertisement seeking CASA volunteers and immediately signed up to help with the Prince George's chapter.
"I was not a neglected or abused child, but I have children, and I know how easily they can be taken advantage of," Hawkins said. "These foster children need someone who can feel their pain and empathize with them."
For more information about the Prince George's CASA program, call Leo Jones at 301-442-1333.