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Children support other children with caring messages

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A local Girl Scout troop worked on a project to recognize another group of children with messages of love. 

Children in the troop, who are under age 10 and members of Polson Girl Scout Troop 3335, sat down with markers, glue and glitter to create dozens of Valentine’s Day cards to be delivered to children receiving services through CASA of Lake and Sanders counties. 

The local CASA chapter is a nonprofit organization serving the 20th Judicial District Court of Montana and represents children who have experienced neglect and abuse and need support within the judicial system. The National CASA Association of Children explains the general mission with a focus on advocacy: 

“The National CASA/GAL Association, together with state and local member programs, supports and promotes court-appointed volunteer advocacy so every child who has experienced abuse or neglect can be safe, have a permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.”

When Girl Scout Troop 3335 heard that the local CASA chapter was collecting cards for the children, they went to work to send messages of love. CASA of Lake and Sanders Counties received those cards and sent a message to the troop: “Thank you to the five Daisies and two Brownies who put their hearts into making Valentines.”

CASA of Lake and Sanders Counties Director Ann Marie McNeel said: “We are making certain that every youth we serve received Valentines. Many of these Valentines were delivered personally by CASA‘s 25 local volunteer advocates who currently serve 67 abused and neglected youth.” 

In addition to the Valentines provided by Girl Scout Troop 3335, other Valentines were provided by CASA’s volunteer advocates as well as other CASA programs. 

“We received almost 1,500 Valentines from people in the community, different CASA groups, our advocates and the Polson Girl Scout Troop,” said Ryan Boden, administrative and outreach assistant for CASA of Lake and Sanders Counties. “The Girl Scouts made about 100 of them and we want to give them a big thank you.”

Boden said 75 percent of the cards were given directly to the children in care by CASA advocates. The other 25 percent of the cards were mailed due to COVID-19 concerns. 

“These kids in care are going through tough times and we wanted them to know that they are supported by the community, so we really tried to hand deliver the bundles of cards to each of the kids,” he said. 

In Lake and Sanders counties, 20th Judicial District Court judges James Manley and Deborah Kim Christopher appoint a CASA volunteer advocate to work on behalf of children receiving court services. The advocate works with the children, their schools, counselors, and others to make sure the child's voice is heard during court decisions. 

“We want to make sure the kids have support during that process,” Boden said. “The kids are almost always removed from their homes for abuse and neglect, so they really need support.” 

The advocates are required to have background checks, training and continuing education. “An advocate can work with one child or a family, and sometimes they can work with three or four families,” he said.

Sixty-seven children are currently receiving CASA services in the two counties. The low number surprised McNeel. She said the number of children in care seems to be going down.

“In Lake County, the trend is going way down, and we don’t know what to think about that,” she said. “When COVID came along, we saw the numbers go down. Is that because abuse and neglect are not being reported or because abuse and neglect are going down?”

The low numbers could be related to several factors, she said. Local child and family services programs are making an effort to keep families together. “If families have enough oversight to make sure a child is safe then we can do that,” she said. “The children can stay in their homes with support.”

McNeel thinks the number of children in care might be down for two reasons: support is allowing children to stay with their families and there is less abuse and neglect in the county at this time. “We decided it’s a little of both because we want to think that it’s a good thing,” she said. “It is scary to think that child abuse and neglect isn’t being reported, but maybe families are spending more time together and getting the support they need. It’s a hopeful thought.”

She noted that the numbers of children in care only include the work done with the counties. The children served by tribal family services participate in a separate program and she didn’t have those numbers.  

McNeel has a way of measuring the success of the program. She said helping children in any way is a success, but the biggest success is when the separation between a parent and child is temporary.

“When a parent gets services, mental health, chemical dependency, employment support, and due to those services and support, their child is returned to them, and then they continue those services, that is a big success,” she said. “These kids love their parents and getting them back with their parents in a safe and supportive environment is a win-win situation.”

She acknowledged that it is difficult to balance the idea that these families have been involved in abuse and neglect. “It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s necessary to consider both the safety of the child and that these parents need help. It’s also important that resources are available so that their cases can stay open and they can continue to get support.” 

Resources help caregivers succeed, which include things like food and shelter, addiction recovery support, employment services and parenting classes. These resources help parents learn a new way to deal with stress, and how to provide the basic needs for a home. 

“These are resources many families didn’t know about or have access to and they really make a big difference,” she said. 

Community connections and support are also vital for a family receiving care. When people learn to reach out and make social connections when they are stressed, the simple act of talking to someone can help. 

“It becomes about the community helping not only the child but the family so they are more positively involved, so then, the child grows up as part of the community with a connection to community and support,” she said. 

McNeel said everyone in a community plays a part in helping CASA children. “From the Girl Scouts making cards to our volunteers working with the children, this is a community effort, everyone plays a part.” 

Those interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, advocate or providing support for the program, should contact CASA of Lake and Sanders counties at 406-883-0158 or find them on the internet. They can also be contacted via Facebook.

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