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By Max Bryan / Times Record / mbryan@swtimes.com

Sebastian County Court Appointed Special Advocates officials want to push their organization’s number of volunteers into the triple digits in 2018.

Sebastian County CASA, which assigns volunteers to represent the county’s foster children, has the goal of growing its number of volunteers to at least 103 by the start of 2019. This would increase its current volunteer count of 77 by nearly 34 percent.

CASA’s 2018 goal is part of a long-term mission to ensure that a volunteer represents every foster child from the county.

CASA Volunteer Coordinator Denise Basham said the 2018 goal is part of CASA’s statewide goal of having “a volunteer for every child in Arkansas.”

Basham said CASA’s 77 volunteers represent 45 percent to 50 percent of the county’s foster children. She explained that one CASA volunteer can take on multiple foster cases, and that each case can contain multiple foster children.

The need for volunteers, Basham said, stems from the number of Sebastian County foster children. Basham said the number of children in the county’s foster system is usually in the 600s or 700s, and that the number sometimes reaches 800.

The number of foster children puts Sebastian County near the top of Arkansas counties both in terms of gross number and rate of foster children.

“We have as many kids in care as Pulaski County, and the population in Pulaski County is so much higher,” Basham said.

Basham said volunteers are also important because of the difference they make in foster children’s lives. A foster child represented by a CASA volunteer is 50 percent less likely to re-enter the foster care system, is less likely to have poor behavior in school and typically spends eight fewer months in foster care, according to Arkansas statistics cited by CASA.

“No matter where (the child) goes or how many times he moves or how many case workers, he always knows you, and you always see him wherever he is,” she said.

A CASA volunteer’s duties include ensuring the safety of the children in their cases, keeping a record of what is going on in the children’s life and attending the children’s court dates.

“Whatever needs to be advocated for, that’s what our volunteers do,” Basham said.

Though many Sebastian County foster children are currently placed in other Arkansas counties, Basham said she prefers Sebastian County CASA’s volunteers to be from the River Valley region. She said the organization has taken volunteers from Crawford County and Oklahoma as well as Sebastian County.

“Even if the kid is in south Arkansas, their hearing is going to be in Sebastian County,” Basham said. “Their parents probably live in Sebastian County, because that’s where the pickup was on the kids, so the case is still going to center in Sebastian County, and if at all possible, they’re working to try to get the kids back to Sebastian County.”

A CASA volunteer must be at least 21 years old, complete necessary background checks and interviews, provide references, complete a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training, be available for court appearances and be willing to commit to the CASA program until his or her first case is closed, according to the CASA website. Basham said each volunteer should expect to spend 10-15 hours per month on case-related work.

Basham said Sebastian County CASA’s next training begins Jan. 16 at the organization’s office, 1216 Towson Ave. She asks that anyone interested in becoming a volunteer call the office at (479) 785-4171.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life,” Basham said.