There is a small, local nonprofit organization in Columbia County to which we must pay attention. CASA for Kids, plus seven local attorneys, judges, volunteers and caseworkers, watch over victims of child abuse in our county. They assist in protecting the rights, wellbeing and status of children up to the age of 18 (21 in special needs cases) who need help from the entire community.

Currently, this organization is short of up to 125 volunteer advocates to stand up for the approximately 264 kids now in foster care in Columbia County.

First, some context and hard facts: In Columbia County there are more than 36 kids per 1,000 children who are victims of abuse in some form (neglect, sexual, violence). This is more than three times the state average of about 12 per 1,000 kids.

Columbia County ranks in the bottom eight out of 36 counties in regard to kids in foster care and length of time spent in foster care. Statewide, more than 87 percent of the children who enter foster care are able to be returned home within one year. In Columbia County the percentage is only about 50 percent (sixth worst in the state).

Since 2003, there has been an increase of 62 percent in abuse reports statewide. This is due, perhaps, to greater awareness and action by the public and authorities, but the trend continues to worsen. Almost 60 percent of the victims of child abuse between the ages of 10 and 18 are girls; almost 75 percent of the perpetrators of all abuse are mothers or fathers.

The above statistics from the 2012 Foster Care Data Book and the Child Welfare Data Book beg the question: Why do kids in Columbia County appear to be in more danger than the rest of the state? We could blame poverty, but only 11.8 percent of the Columbia County population is considered to be poor, while the state average is 14.8 percent. County income is above the state average. We could blame stability in the home, but home ownership in our county is 76.8 percent, well over the state average of 63.1 percent. The percentage of folks living in the same home for more than one year is 86.5 percent, compared to less than 82 percent statewide.

Homes more prone to a transient population (rentals) stand at 10.4 percent in Columbia County, while the state average is at a far greater 23.3 percent. Therefore, the answer to the question posed above resides elsewhere and should be an inspiration to deeper thought and conversation within our county.

Regardless, the children continue to be victimized, and those who can must stand up for them.

Lindsey King, the director for CASA, experienced the foster care system firsthand. By the time she was 11 years old she had lived in 27 different foster homes before her advocate aided in her permanent adoption. Her past experience includes working with senior services, suicide prevention and aiding Third World countries in attaining needed supplies. She has a heart for children, as do the seven members of the CASA board.

While aiding the victims of child abuse in Columbia County, she is also doing her best to communicate the growing need for volunteer advocates to the citizens of our county.

For CASA, it’s all about the kids. When kids have a CASA advocate, they spend less time in foster care and are less likely to return to the foster care system. With CASA advocacy, approximately 70 percent of victims are reunited with their family. Most often, due to the cumbersome nature of the foster care system, the CASA advocate is the single most consistent presence in a child’s life while in foster care, as it was in Lindsey’s own experience.

When parents of victims have engaged with CASA, the family has benefited. Past CASA advocates have taken their own experiences in advocating for kids with them as they become foster parents and/or adoptive parents.

CASA advocates provide status reports including requirements for the well-being of each child to the child’s attorney and the judge. These reports give the judges information they otherwise could not get any other way. The goals of CASA are to prevent further trauma to each and every victim of abuse at times caused by an impersonal system and to ease their transition to a stable and healthy childhood. They don’t want any victim to “fall through the cracks.”

While the causes and cures for the worsening trend of child abuse in Columbia County are dilemmas for the community to ponder and solve, the heroic role of CASA should be supported by the whole county. If you can help by volunteering or with financing, please call CASA at 503-410-5097. They need good people to help the kids of our county.

CASA is not religiously based, but on a personal note, as the writer of this article, I urge those of faith in our county to pray earnestly for the child victims, their parents and other perpetrators, as well as the legal system and the volunteers who aid these victims. I also urge those of faith to pray for all who are, have been or will be falsely accused, since the system to protect our kids sometimes proves to be imperfect.

Richard M. Demings is a Yankton resident.

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