Helping to make a difference
Rockdale CASA works to better children's lives

Conyers resident Pat Mann said she knows firsthand the pain and confusion a child feels when he or she is taken from home due to neglect or abuse. Social workers removed her from her home at age 8 because her mother, an alcoholic, would disappear for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, leaving Mann's father to care for her and her younger brother.

Because Mann's father worked full-time, there was no one to watch the children. At the time, in 1948, social workers placed Mann in the Southern Christian Home in Atlanta. When Mann turned 14, her mother had become sober, so Mann was sent home. But her mother relapsed and Mann found herself spending much time helping to raise her younger siblings.

Forty years later, after raising two children of her own, Mann read a series of newspaper articles about how abused and neglected children weren't getting the services they required.

"It made me aware of these children who were floating around and needed help," Mann said.

Mann decided to act and became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteer in 1993. CASA, a nationwide nonprofit organization, provides trained community volunteers to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children in court. The primary job of a CASA volunteer is to gather as much information as possible about a child who's been removed from the home by the court, and make a recommendation to the judge as to where the child should be placed.

"I feel like CASA is a safety net for the children," Mann said.

Mann said she works in close partnership with the Department of Family and Children Services, as their goals are the same: to help children. But, sometimes overwhelming caseloads make it a challenge for DFCS to do its job.

"A lot of these children end up having two or three DFCS workers because of turnover. By having a CASA, they are having someone consistent that they can learn to trust. They feel like they have somebody in their corner and they can establish a relationship with us," Mann said.

Because of Mann's deep involvement with Rockdale CASA (in 1997 she earned Rockdale County CASA of the Year and in 1998 Georgia CASA of the Year), the Rockdale County CASA office, located at 999 Green St. in Olde Town Conyers, is naming the visitation center after her. The Rockdale County visitation center consists simply of a room set aside in the CASA offices for biological families separated by the court to meet on a weekly basis. Mann helps supervise the meetings.

CASA established the center seven years ago and it operated for the first two years with no funds. Today, the room looks much like a cozy living room with a sofa, a love seat, two rocking chairs, a dinette set, a television with a VCR, curtains, a rug and a toy chest. About 30 to 40 visits take place there each month. The center allows families to maintain their bonds, said Lynn Wetzel, CASA executive director.

"It's a homey little place where they can visit with each other," she said.

While Mann volunteers with the visitation center, she also handles between one and three cases at a time. When she is referred a case by the courts, she interviews people connected to the child, such as family members, neighbors, teachers and school counselors. She then prepares a written report for the judge, along with her recommendations for the child based on her findings.

In order to become a CASA volunteer, a person must take a 40-hour training and participate in court observations. After training, a volunteer is sworn in as an officer of the juvenile court.

The goal of CASA is to find a safe permanent home for a child. Most cases either end up in adoption, relative placement or reunification with parents. The last option, which neither DFCS nor CASA wants, is to keep a child in foster care.

In Rockdale, 100 percent of all of the cases which are adjudicated are provided a CASA volunteer. Last year, Rockdale CASA served 235 children.

"There are times when we can take some kind of solace that we do make a difference," Mann said.

Typically, Rockdale CASA maintains roughly 50 volunteers but more are always needed. For more information on becoming a CASA volunteer, call 770-761-0202.

E-mail Karen Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.