A 5-year-old boy was sexually molested by his mother, so he was removed from his home by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and placed in the home of his aunt, his mother’s sister.

A young girl had been sexually assaulted by her older brother, so she was placed in a foster home in which at least one older boy lived.

A teenager living with her mother sometimes was abused because of her mom’s mental illness. The girl had no idea she had the potential to go to college and get financial assistance.

In each situation, the abused or neglected East Tennessee child had a voice – a trained volunteer called a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) who championed the child’s right to feel safe and provided important information to a juvenile court judge in charge of each child’s case.

Studies have shown that children who have experienced abuse or neglect are far more likely to find a safe, permanent home if they have a CASA volunteer by their side, Kesha Waters, executive director of CASA of the Tennessee Heartland, told a recent Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning class.

“CASA volunteers give children a voice and a sense of hope,” she said.

Her organization provides services to children in Anderson and Blount counties and has offices in the YWCA building in Oak Ridge and in courthouses in Clinton and Blount County.

She revealed that a CASA volunteer told a judge that the sexually abused boy living with his aunt had contact with his mother, which was forbidden. On a CASA recommendation, the boy was moved to a safer home.

A CASA volunteer found out that the girl who had been victimized by her brother had been placed in a home where she had to walk through an older boy’s bedroom to reach her bedroom. The judge followed the CASA recommendation that the girl be placed in a safer home environment, Waters said, adding that juvenile court judges follow “about 98% of our recommendations.”

A CASA volunteer convinced a teenager that she had the ability to do well in college, and he advised her on how to apply to the University of Tennessee. She was accepted, suffered a mental health crisis in the fall, but recovered and with his help, she was allowed to start her university studies in the spring and live in a dormitory.

One job of a juvenile court judge is to decide whether to return a child removed by a state’s foster care and child welfare system to the custody of one or two biological parents or to find a permanent home elsewhere to keep the child safe. A CASA volunteer assigned to a case provides information to help the judge determine what’s in the child’s best interest.

According to Waters, CASAs are community volunteers who are trained and supported by CASA staff and appointed by the court as officers who will “act as the court’s eyes and ears” in child abuse and neglect cases.