When she volunteered to become an advocate for abused children, Susan van Beuningen said she did not realize the scope of child abuse around her.
The first volunteer for Baton Rouge’s CASA Association 20 years ago, she learned how difficult it was to see the physical and emotional marks abuse could make on a family.
For six years she followed a pair of children through a case, writing court reports after countless interviews with friends, neighbors and teachers, doing her part so a child would not slip through a complicated, over-burdened system.
“It is a fight going on over a child’s life,” she said.
Van Beuningen was one of the first volunteers sworn into the Capital Area Court Appointed Special Advocates Association in 1992. The Baton Rouge chapter of the organization was founded after CASA groups in other cities exhibited the program’s positive effect, said Stephen Strohschein, an attorney who was the first chairman of the board for CASA.
While case workers from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services are charged with monitoring children who are wards of the state, board members realized that a CASA volunteer could augment their work.
“You have case workers that are very diligent and faithful, but they don’t have the time and the resources to put into monitoring one child,” Strohschein said. “(CASA) gives the community a chance to help in a way that did not exist there.”
In the past 20 years CASA has trained 968 volunteers to advocate for more than 1,800 children involved in child abuse cases in East Baton Rouge Parish’s judicial district. The organization now provides a volunteer advocate for every case of child abuse in the parish, said Liz Betz, the executive director for the past 20 years.
A judge founded CASA in Seattle in 1977. In the early 1990s, different groups tried multiple times to start a chapter in Baton Rouge, but none took root, Strohschein said.
Strohschein wanted to volunteer for CASA after hearing about the program from an involved friend in New Orleans, but he found the program did not exist in East Baton Rouge Parish. Instead he was encouraged to join a group attempting to establish a chapter. He became the first chairman of the board.
“It was like all the earlier efforts coalesced into an organization,” he said.
The Junior League of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State Bar Association and Volunteers of America had all supported the effort.
In December 1992, the board hired Betz, who pledged to lead the organization for five years.
“I felt like this was a chance to have an impact on families,” she said. “How healthy our families are, that’s what was important to me.”
When Betz joined, CASA’s office had a student worker, rented office space downtown and a few filing cabinets holding the files of 22 child abuse cases. In 2010 CASA moved into its modern, two-story Louisiana Avenue headquarters, designed and built for the non-profit.
Two volunteers — van Beuningen and another volunteer who has since died — were appointed Sept. 29, 1992, and began their first cases.
“I found it attractive because if you can help children, you have a more widespread effect,” van Beuningen said. “If you can change their lives, you can help future lives.”
Her first and only case as an advocate lasted six years. She advocated for two siblings and grew into a mentor role with the older child.
“It was difficult. Somewhere in our minds we think, (abuse) goes on in Baton Rouge,” she said. “But to drive a few miles from your house and be plunked down in the middle of that situation, it’s sad.”
When Mark Hughes began training to become an advocate last year, he did not know how in-depth his work would be. He had retired from the Army Reserves and wanted to volunteer somewhere else while still working full-time at BASF in Geismar.
“I was thinking along the lines of a Big Brother, mentor-type deal,” he said. “This is far more than that. This is a deep dive into advocacy for those kids.”
The teen in Hughes’ case has fallen years behind in school through no fault of his own, Hughes said, because of a series of traumatic events. Hughes sees his role as more than just preparing reports for the judge. He stands up for the child’s education in hopes of preparing him for life after high school.
“A lot of times we don’t see all this stuff. These kids are missing the basics. They’re not even getting what we would consider basics,” Hughes said.
Hughes’ focus on his child’s education reflects the new goals of CASA. Now that every child in an abuse case has an advocate, Betz said, the organization now trains volunteers to look out for the children’s best interests in school, too.
They learn to ensure that each child’s education plan is being met, and they can represent the child at special education meetings where parents should normally appear.
New volunteers also hear an emphasis on shortening the length of time children stay in care of the state and ensuring they don’t “age out” of the system — reaching 18 before they find a permanent home.
“When children age out of the foster care system, they are almost always ill-prepared to live independently,” Betz said. “The things you learn when you live in a family, you just don’t realize.”
Advocates usually pledge to volunteer for a year, so CASA is constantly recruiting. Only 10 percent of those who inquire about volunteering actually enter training, Betz said. Many have too little time, and the CASA office is honest about the commitment volunteering requires.
They fear volunteers who quit may actually do harm.
“Because that is one more person who has come and gone in that child’s life,” Betz said.
Although volunteering can be difficult, Hughes encourages those who care about children to try.
“If you have a heart for children, kids, and you want to make a difference, this is definitely the thing to do,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Volunteers need no special talents, van Beuningen said.
“It doesn’t matter how eloquent you are,” she said. “You’re just a voice for the child.”
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