April is Child Abuse Prevention Month
For Tess Fletcher, the work is personal.
The Children’s Advocacy Alliance executive director began her career fighting on behalf of abused and neglected children as a volunteer through CASA, or Court-Appointed Special Advocates. She pursued the opportunity to represent children’s best interests in court because she had family members who were sexually abused as children and believed they did not receive the justice they deserved.
“From that point forward, I knew that when I got older, I wanted to work or volunteer for an organization that helped kids,” Fletcher said. “I found CASA and volunteered for a couple years before becoming volunteer coordinator for the program.”
In 2008, CASA of the 20th Judicial District merged with the Central Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center to form the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and Fletcher was named executive director. Together, the organizations provide “hope, healing, and a voice for justice for abused and neglected children” in Faulkner, Van Buren, Searcy, Conway, and Perry counties.
“Thankfully, the boards for CASA and the CAC had the foresight to join together to help us better serve the child from the initial investigation of abuse to their placement in a safe, permanent home,” Fletcher said. “Through this partnership, we’re able to serve the same demographic while sharing resources and expenses.”
A young participant receives a hero’s welcome as he crosses the finish line at the 2019 Heroes for Hope race on April 6, a 1.31K/5K/10K race that supports the Children’s Advocacy Alliance.
CASA of the 20th Judicial District
CASA recruits and trains local advocates to stand up for abused and neglected children in Faulkner, Van Buren, and Searcy counties. After completing 30 hours of training, these advocates become sworn officers of the court and are appointed a case.
To make objective recommendations to the court on behalf of the child, the CASA advocate explores the child’s background and assesses their situation, becoming the “eyes and ears” for the judge. Their duty is to focus on the child’s best interests and express the child’s needs and wishes. The CASA advocate stays with the case until the child is in a safe and permanent home, providing consistency and stability in a time of turmoil.
In 2018 alone, CASA’s 68 volunteer advocates represented 184 children in Faulkner, Van Buren, and Searcy counties. A CASA advocate is appointed only one case at a time.
CASA coordinator Tracie Cadiente, CASA recruiter/trainer Heather Laferte, and CASA supervisors Jessica Hess and Jasmin Joseph recruit, screen, train, and supervise volunteers to work within the court system on behalf of children.
“The CASA advocates are at the heart of the program and provide stability for kids who are in foster care,” Fletcher said. “We could not do this work without them.”
Children’s Advocacy Center
The Children’s Advocacy Center brings together a team of specially trained professionals who evaluate and investigate cases of child abuse.
Fletcher explained that the Children’s Advocacy Center conducts the initial investigation of abuse, putting it at the start of the justice-seeking process for kids who have been abused. On-site medical exams and mental health services are also available at the CAC. All of these services are conducted at no cost to the families.
“When a call comes to the Child Abuse Hotline, an investigator will contact the agency to set up a forensic interview at the CAC,” Fletcher said. “Once the family is there for the forensic interview, they not only receive that service but are also assigned a family advocate who works with them to provide crisis intervention, support services, and case management.”
Karli Potratz is the forensic interviewer at the Children’s Advocacy Center and Lacy Taylor is the family advocate. Michelle DuVall is an education specialist, providing information on reporting child abuse and maltreatment to children and adults in schools, churches, and other organizations. Courtney McPherson is the mental health therapist for the agency.
On the wall of the CAC is a floor-to-ceiling illustration of a tree with more than 2,000 colorful leaves positioned on the tree’s branches and trailing along the CAC’s walls. Each leaf was colored by a child who has received the CAC’s services.
When development coordinator Leia Smith was looking for volunteer opportunities with area nonprofits while she was a student at the University of Central Arkansas, she knew the Children’s Advocacy Alliance was the best fit for her altruism when she saw the tree at its Children’s Advocacy Center.
“I volunteered at 50 nonprofits in central Arkansas that served either the homeless, kids, or veterans,” Smith said. “The Children’s Advocacy Alliance is the one that stuck.”
Like Fletcher, Smith ultimately became part of the staff after serving as volunteer, working first in outreach and marketing and now in development.
Also, like Fletcher, it’s personal for Smith, too.
“My biological father abused me from birth until age 15,” she said. “Statistically, one in 10 kids will be abused by their 18th birthday. Our work will not be accomplished until we shift that from one in 10 to ‘none in 10.’”
A girl named Jessica colored the first leaf on October 18, 2010. Jessica’s leaf is at the center of the tree.
“The leaves are for solidarity,” Smith said. “When a child comes to the CAC, they immediately notice the tree, and Karli, our forensic interviewer, explains the meaning behind the leaves. That child then no longer feels like they’re alone.”
One of the benefits of having CASA and the CAC operate under the Children’s Advocacy Alliance umbrella is that children are likely to receive the services they need without being hopscotched from place to place.
“We’re not sending kids to intimidating buildings, to different strangers, and forcing them to relive and retell something that’s very personal and very traumatic,” Smith said. “Talking to our trained professionals gets them a step closer to healing.”
The Children’s Advocacy Alliance would like to make this partnership even better for the children and families they serve by bringing the CASA program and the CAC under one roof.
“We need more space,” Fletcher said.
Between CASA and the CAC, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance has 11 full-time staff members scattered between two temporary – and cramped – spaces in downtown Conway. There is also a satellite CASA location in Clinton that serves Van Buren and Searcy counties.
The 11 full-time employees at the Children’s Advocacy Alliance wear blue in observance of Child Abuse Prevention Month. They are positioned in front of the Tree of Hope at the Children’s Advocacy Center. Each leaf was colored by one of the 2,000 children who have used the CAC’s services since October 2010.
The four Faulkner County CASA employees along with three administrative employees who work for both CASA and the CAC – Fletcher, Smith, and financial coordinator Debra Lance – operate out of 1,200 square feet of space on the second and third floors of the Faulkner County Courthouse.
The other four employees work directly with families in the Children’s Advocacy Center, located in a 1,632-square-foot building at 574 Locust Street.
“Because we don’t have space, our employees are doubling up,” Fletcher said. We have interns on top of our staff – sometimes three and four people in an office.”
Most important, the lack of space affects the Children’s Advocacy Alliance’s ability to provide coordinated guidance, treatment, and support for child victims of abuse and neglect.
“Earlier this month, we had four different families in the CAC at the same time, and we had absolutely no where to put them,” Fletcher said. “We had kids there for medical exams, and we had two different families there for therapy. We literally had to put a family in the backyard because we do not have enough rooms. Thankfully the weather was nice.”
Fletcher added that not having space makes it more difficult to maintain confidentiality for the families that come to the CAC.
“Every family deserves to have their confidentiality upheld when they come to the CAC, and it’s really hard to maneuver that in our current facility. If we had a bigger building, we would be able to have two interview rooms to see two separate families at one time.”
Fletcher said another downside of limited space is not being able to house additional staff to conduct these interviews and other services.
“We desperately need to hire more staff, but we have no place for them to work.”
How You Can Help
From individual contributions through the Seeds of Hope campaign to corporate support and event sponsorships, monetary donations help the Children’s Advocacy Alliance fulfill its mission to provide hope and justice to child abuse survivors.
“A dollar a month means as much to our organization as $100 or $1,000,” Fletcher said. “You don’t have to be very well off to support these kids.”
It’s not only monetary support that can help the Children’s Advocacy Alliance change the lives of abused and neglected kids in the community.
“We’re always in need of CASA volunteers,” Fletcher said. “And the CAC accepts donations, such as nonperishable food items, for the children who come there – from having snacks available while they wait to providing entire food boxes to those coming from families struggling with food insecurity.”
Smith added that businesses can find other ways to support the Children’s Advocacy Alliance that align with the products and services that business provides.
“Does your company support volunteerism among employees? If so, encourage them to volunteer at our two annual events: the Heroes for Hope race and the Festival of Chairs,” Smith said. “Businesses can also partner with us by fulfilling a specific need, such as donating lawn maintenance services for our backyard.”
Perhaps the easiest and most immediate way to help further the mission of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance is to schedule a tour of the CAC to get a firsthand look at the work the agency does.
“Come walk the path of the 2,000 central Arkansas children who have used the services at the CAC, including 259 in 2018 alone and more than 70 so far this year,” Smith said. “Instead of holding your staff meeting at your office, we invite you to visit the CAC for an eye-opening tour to see how we help abused and neglected children in our community.”
To schedule a tour at the Children’s Advocacy Center, contact Leia Smith at email@example.com. To learn more about the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, including how to support the nonprofit, visit hopeandjustice.org.