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Meet Your Neighbors: CASA director grateful for family’s support

Sue Guinn Legg • Aug 19, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Leslie Dalton, executive director of the local Court Appointed Special Advocates program for abused and neglected children, spent most of her own childhood in Germany.

The daughter of an Air Force veteran, she’s lived in Italy and Guam and spent time in cities across the United States and Europe.

Since graduating college, she’s worked as a news broadcaster, a law clerk, a nonprofit manager, a public administrator and what she describes as “a lot of other crazy jobs in between.”

Through it all, Dalton said, the one constant in her life has been her parents and the love and support they have always held for her.

“I’ve always had that to fall back on,” she said. “And now after working with so many children who don’t have that, I often find myself thinking how grateful I am to have had them, especially when I’m home with my own children.”

Dalton first came to CASA five years ago a volunteer. In 2009, she became the volunteer coordinator for the regional organization, and she’s served as its executive director for the past year and a half.

“When I started, we served about 170 children a year. Now it’s more than 400. The growth has been through a combination of grants we‘ve received and increases in cases of abuse and neglect seen by the courts,” she said.

CASA’s role in those children’s lives is to train volunteers to investigate their circumstances, health status and homes, to interview them and determine their wants, to provide them with a voice and to stand up for them in court.

Area judges typically reserve CASA volunteers for the most-difficult cases. And for the more than 400 children who received their help last year, the cases of another 400 local children were adjudicated without their assistance.

“It’s an intense volunteer position,” Dalton said. “We follow each child for about a year or until their case is closed. Sometimes a CASA volunteer is the only stable person they have in their life.

“If you asked a child, they always want to go with their parents. Sometimes that’s not possible. Our volunteers are trained not to make promises and not to break trusts.

“We try to give our volunteers every scenario. There are a lot of sensitive issues they have to talk about.”

In addition to 30 hours of training, CASA volunteers must undergo background and reference checks. And before they begin work, they must spend time shadowing other volunteers and observing court proceedings.

“The training gives everyone time to decide if being a CASA volunteer is something they might want to do,” Dalton said.

With so many children spending most of their childhood in Foster Care, last fall the CASA launched a new program to help older youths who nearing their 18th birthdays and preparing to age out of the foster care system.

The new Fostering Futures program provides adult mentors, CASA volunteers who have gone through even more training, to youths age 14 to 21 to help them enroll in college, apply for jobs and find apartments. “It’s all the things that families normally do,” Dalton said.

The program has so far helped about 75 young people and has already seen some success stories.

“We have kids who are in college, kids who have their own cars and their own apartments,” she said.

Because the number of children in need of CASA’s help is about twice as large as the number of the volunteers available, the program continually recruits.

The Fostering Futures program currently has 30 trained volunteers and staff members working with older youth and 75 volunteers appointed to abused and neglected children with cases pending in the courts of Washington, Greene and Unicoi counties.

With more funding, both those numbers could grow. And that’s what Dalton is swinging for.

Today she and CASA’s volunteer board members are hosting their eighth annual benefit golf tournament at Johnson City Country Club. Like CASA itself, the tournament is growing, and their goal is take it to an even higher level.

This year, the tournament has been designated as a round-one qualifier for The Big Tournament, the world’s largest amateur charity golf tournament, to be played Nov. 21-22 in Las Vegas with a $10,000 top prize for the winner’s favorite cause.

Next year, CASA hopes to work in conjunction with local sports figures and the athletics department at East Tennessee State University to bring in golfers with enough local celebrity to generate greater interest.

In the meantime, Dalton said, CASA will continue recruiting and training volunteers with the hope of helping more local children who have been abused or neglected.

She encouraged anyone who may have a heart for becoming a CASA volunteer or a Fostering Futures mentor to visit www.casanetn.org or call 461-3500 to learn more.

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