Lynchburg organization needs volunteers to represent children in court

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) They're among the most vulnerable people in the court system: children who've either been taken from their homes or still live with their parents under a protective order.

When their cases go before a judge, volunteers with an organization called Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, are often by their side.

Last year CASA of Central Virginia served more than 360 kids, but many more are waiting for help.

"This past year our waiting list has been the highest that I've seen it since I've been on staff," said Allison Stronza, executive director for CASA of Central Virginia.

Right now more than 80 children in the Lynchburg area need a volunteer advocate, according to Stronza.

"Almost all of the cases that we see coming through have substance abuse attached to them, so I think drugs are a real problem in our community right now," Stronza said.

The greatest need for volunteers is in the Bedford court system, where the number of children needing help is growing but the number of advocates has dwindled.

In 2015, 34 CASA volunteers worked with 120 children in Bedford County. Last year, the number of children grew to 154, but the number of volunteers dropped to just 31.

"Bedford is one of our highest case loads," Stronza explained.

Volunteers receive training. What they need, according to CASA staff, is time and a heart for children.

"We love to get people who are retired, or who have their employer's support because sometimes you will need to attend court," said Kelli Diaz, recruitment & development coordinator for CASA of Central Virginia.

While CASA advocates aren't required for a child's case to make its way through the court system, Stronza says those with her organization's support have better outcomes.

"When we have to release a case because we don't have a volunteer to assign to it, it's really difficult because that case is going to go on with or without a CASA volunteer," said Stronza. "We just want to assign an advocate to as many children as possible."

Those interested in volunteering can attend an information session August 10 at 10 a.m., at the CASA of Central Virginia Office at 901 Church Street in Lynchburg.

Attending an information session is a required first step in the process. From there, volunteers are screened and, if they're chosen for the program, go on to training.