The money, provided by the Big Ten with the mandate that it go to help child-focused organizations in the Columbus area in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that involved Penn State, will go a long way to helping the central Ohio community.
"It was an easy decision to fund the Center for Family Safety and Healing and CASA," OSU athletics director Gene Smith said. "They are powerhouse resources for families and children in crisis, and are so very worthy of community investment. The work they do is critically important to helping restore the lives of children and families in need. It is our hope that in supporting their incredible work, others will follow suit."
While Nationwide Children's is one of the most visible charities in the area, one might wonder, though, exactly what CASA is.
In OSU's release, it is described as follows: "CASA, the only organization in Franklin County training individuals to advocate for children suffering from violent abuse and severe neglect, serves as a guardian ad litem agency for these victims. After screening and training, the all-volunteer corps of advocates become sworn officers of the court, looking out for the best interests of children."
But the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Franklin County is much more than that. In the interest of full disclosure, its president, Greg May, is a good friend of mine, and through Greg I've become familiar with the important work the group does in cases of severe child abuse in the Columbus area. CASA volunteers are key pieces of the process when it comes to helping some of the worst victims of abuse and neglect in the court system, and it's something I know Greg is passionate about.
With that in mind, I reached out to him for a Q&A about CASA in the hopes that it might help what I view as an important cause. For more, visit CASA's website where you can learn more, donate money or start the process on becoming a volunteer.
BSB: Can you walk us through how you learned about this and how it worked out that you received one of the donations?
Greg May: "Several months ago we learned about this whole thing, and one of our board members is (former OSU running back) Calvin Murray. Calvin kind of spearheaded an effort for us to get our name in front of Ohio State and let them know what we do. Based on what we knew of the criteria as far as how this money was going to be allocated, we wanted to make sure that they were aware of us. With Calvin's help and the help of our executive director, Kathy Kerr, who had some contacts at Ohio State as well, basically we just launched a little bit of a lobbying effort that culminated in us being selected."
BSB: Do you know yet what the funds will allow you to do as an organization?
GM: "Right now, I would say I'm not aware of any specific earmark on it, but I can say that our numbers and our research shows that it basically costs us somewhere between $1,000 and $1,200 to take on a case for a child for one year, so theoretically I think we could say there's going to be somewhere between 20 and 30 extra children that will be helped from this money.
"One of the other things that we may use this money for – the heart and soul of our organization are the volunteer guardians that we recruit, screen, train and then assign cases. We have over 200 active volunteer guardians, we call them CASAs – that stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Particularly, we need African American and Hispanic males just to balance things out. The great majority of our existing volunteer CASAs are female. We'll take anyone that wants to volunteer and become a CASA, but in order for us to really do more good for abused and neglected boys, it would be nice for us to be able to connect with them with a male CASA.
"I would say some of this money is probably going to go to help us recruit and screen and train volunteers. Our numbers are adequate, but we've got our sights set on improving our demographic profile a little bit so I would say some of that money is going to go to do that."
BSB: For those who are unaware, can you expand on what CASA does to help victims of child abuse and neglect in the Columbus area?
GM: "Usually in these kinds of cases where there has been abuse and neglect and children's services has stepped in, this child may need to be placed into foster care or might need permanent placement into an adoption situation. The problem is that all parties except the child, generally are represented in court by council. What CASA does is we go out and recruit, train and screen volunteers who go and really research these cases from the standpoint of the child. Their sole mission is to advise the court what is best for the child. That may involve interviews and doing background checks on some of the parties who are trying to get custody. It may be doing an in-depth study on the parents and what issues they are having – are they worthy of maintaining custody or is there a great likelihood that abuse and neglect might happen? All these things are looked at by our volunteer CASAs, and then we have a staff in our office of about 10 to 12 people that includes staff attorneys, and we go to court with the volunteer and have a chance to stand up in court and advocate for what is best for the child.
"Judges love us. They really recognize that what we do, the court system itself is ill-equipped to do, so they really look at our volunteers and our staff attorneys to give them guidance. We get a fair amount of funding from the county itself. Roughly a third of the budget comes from the county, and that's an acknowledgment from the county that we do a better job for less money than what can do be done by the court system itself."
"We serve probably 30 to 40 percent of the cases that we could be involved in. We are able to reserve the cases when they first come into the court system, and we pick the worst of the worst. We generally take the cases you read about in the paper where a child has been subjected to horrific abuse. We've seen the worst of the worst. Those cases make it to the top of our priority list. A lot of times, they involve multiple children in a family. It's heart-wrenching when you actually see some of these cases. What we try to do is make sure that they are placed into a situation that is going to be better for them and give them a much greater chance of escaping the horrific circumstances in which we found them.
"Not only do we advocate for them when it is time for the court to make a decision about where they're going to live, we maintain that relationship with them for a year or later – however long it takes – so that we can make sure that whatever situation they are placed in isn't as bad as the one they were in, because sometimes that happens. Sometimes one of their relatives might decide that they want to take the child and there's no guarantee that it's going to be a better situation, so we monitor these situations even after the court has made its decision. If there's problems, we go back to court for that child to make sure that the situation gets rectified. We stand behind these children throughout the process until such a time that we can determine that they are on proper footing."
BSB: Obviously what happened with Sandusky was an awful situation, but what does it mean to you that you're able to help bring about some good from the whole thing?
GM:"We're excited about that for a number of reasons. It's important for people to know that Ohio State itself did not benefit from receiving this money. The money was donated to charities that are set up to help kids – all of it. It's not going to fix the scoreboard or put new weight machines in the training facility. This money was earmarked for helping children, and in my personal opinion I can't think of a better way for that money to be used.
"But as far as being recognized by Ohio State for what we do, it's absolutely a great day for us. Not only are we going to benefit from this money and it's going to help us further our mission, but the exposure that we are getting from this, we really can't put a value on that. Our biggest obstacle, really, is that when you say CASA, it doesn't really tell people what we do. Our biggest hurdle in raising money and recruiting volunteers and in general just getting the public to embrace what we do is we lack name recognition. The exposure that we're getting from this is just as valuable as the money that we're getting. When Ohio State puts their stamp on something, that means something in this town."