Each day, due to neglect and abuse, children are removed from their homes and put into the arms of the state in an effort to provide them a safe environment and improve their lives. These children, all under 18, must go through the legal process to determine their permanent residency.
That's where angels appear to help them: the Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers.
With CASA, a trained volunteer represents the child and acts in his or her best interest before the court, monitoring the case until dismissal.
Recently, darkness penetrated Oklahoma CASA in the form of Anna Naukam, former executive director. In a release from state Attorney General Drew Edmondson in August, he stated Naukam and her husband, Eugene, were indicted Aug. 18 by a grand jury for embezzling almost $500,000 from the state agency. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison in September; her husband is awaiting trial.
Edmondson said the actions of the Naukams shouldn't tarnish the selfless work by CASA volunteers.
"I worked with CASA volunteers as district attorney in Muskogee and have been a strong supporter of these programs as attorney general," he said in the August release. "We should not allow these allegations of criminal acts by the former executive director to detract from the strong community support these volunteers receive across the state."
One point that CASA agencies want clear is that there are 26 CASA organizations in Oklahoma, each independent, with its own board of directors and fund-raising events. CASA of Oklahoma County, which became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in July 2008, has the largest jurisdiction.
In regard to the recent conviction, CASA Oklahoma County Executive Director Lee Ann Limber said, "Our funds were not affected. We have completely separate boards. We do our own fund raising. It (the embezzlement) by no means reflects the integrity of the volunteers or the work we do every day. We have continued serving children, despite the difficult news."
Last year, 3,700 Oklahoma children were served by 1,300 CASA volunteers. In Oklahoma County, 740 children were helped by 236 volunteers. Volunteers are a vital component, as they and the judge may be the only constant throughout the child's journey through the court system.
The children that CASA volunteers help have come into the system through no fault of their own. They have come from shelters, group homes, hospitals and foster homes. Kathy McCarty, a CASA volunteer who has been serving children for more than 13 years, has seen lives changed for the better and says it is possible to bring them to a good place.
"These children have been through horrible conditions," she said. "But, these children are always hopeful, which makes it hopeful for the rest of us."
Volunteer training is held year-round. There are certain requirements and qualifications to complete, including 34 hours of training. In addition, a commitment of three to five hours per week is required. Last year, Limber said CASA of Oklahoma County trained 97 new volunteers.
"That's a record for us," she said. "We served more children and trained more volunteers through a tough economy."
For more information, call 713-6456. "Gina A. Dabney