Mary Purvis on works of CASA program
CASA (court appointed special advocates) was originally established as a nationwide program in 1977. In 2002, CASA Mississippi became a part of the organization. Although 15 years old, CASA Mississippi is revitalizing its chapter. The state organization is looking to reach out to more children every day through the county court systems. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips spoke with Mary Purvis, executive director for CASA Mississippi, about the organization’s opportunities to volunteer and help change children’s lives.
When was CASA Mississippi established?
“CASA Mississippi was established in 2002. The former executive director resigned in 2014 and was not replaced by the board until they hired me about a year ago. So, I’m the only person in the state office. We have a new board of directors, new strategic plan, we’re reviewing and revising a lot of our policies, procedures and governing documents. So, it’s a little bit of a refresh in that sense. And the state office has always been located on the coast. I’m the first executive director to be in Jackson.”
Why the switch?
“The role of the state association is to support CASA programs. Our strongest and oldest programs are located on the coast: Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. That’s also where we have the most children in custody in the state. So there’s a great need, so I’m really glad we have strong programs down there. When I applied for the job, national CASA, who participated in my hiring, said, ‘It seems to make sense to have somebody in the central area because we just have a new program developing in Lafayette County.’ ”
You said you got a new board. How many people are on that board?
“So, we have eight people on the board, and it’s a state-wide board.”
What’s your new strategic plan and why are you changing it?
“They really had not done an involved strategic planning process in several years. So it really was kind of time with the new board of directors. We brought all of the local staffs and representatives to our strategic planning retreat. We had an outside facilitator. Because our role is to support them, it was important to have their voice at that retreat as well. So we spent a day with this facilitator and came up with several goals and objectives and a timeline for the work we’re going to do over the next three to five years.”
What are your main goals in that timeline?
“A couple of them are foundational to continue to get the state association stronger. We have a couple of empty seats on our board of directors. We are still working on those foundational documents, just really strengthening the non-profit side of it. One of our primary goals is to raise awareness. Because we are currently in only six out of 82 counties, we really think that should be a focus for a state-wide public campaign as well.
“We’ve got to look at fund-raising as a piece of that for the state office as well. Right now we operate under a grant from the national CASA association and we really want to diversify our funding. So, we’re looking at grants, we’re looking at possible events that would be both fund-raising and awareness events and would be a way to engage other non-board members in the community to be involved in the organization.”
Can you tell me exactly what a court appointed special advocate does?
“In the six counties where we have local programs, a judge in a case where a child has been adjudicated as abused or neglected, they can use their discretion and decide whether they want to appoint a CASA volunteer on the case. And that’s the court appointed special advocate. They have gone through a background check, an interview, an application and 30 hours of service training, and then they can get appointed to a case.
“Their primary role is to work with the court, CPS, and the guardian ad litem to advocate for the best interest of the child. On the most typical case, that’s at least one site visit a month to visit the child. They’re getting to know the child, and really kind of getting a sense of what their current situation is so that they can go to the judge and say, ‘They’re in a good situation and here are the things that are going well,’ or ‘This is not a great situation. We need to look at moving them,’ and they make a recommendation ultimately to the court as to what should happen with the child. And they stay with the case through permanent placement of the child.”
How does that differ from Child Protective Services (CPS)?
“In the ideal situation, the CPS worker and the CASA worker are sharing information. The idea is that there are multiple people with multiple perspectives advocating for what they believe is in the child’s best interest. So, most of the time it’s sort of a really collaborative relationship.”
You touched on grants earlier. Can you tell me what CASA Mississippi’s annual budget is and where that budget comes from?
“Our budget is around $110,000. A significant portion of that is what’s called a state development grant from national CASA. So, a primary strategic objective of the national association is to have a strong state association in every state. So they support with state development grants states where they need to get their state association, strengthened, up and running… We are also in the process of planning an event for February 2018 that would be a fund-raising and awareness event.”
How much are you looking for from those two grants and the fund-raising event?
“Our main objective and goal is to be able to host an annual conference and a training of facilitators. So, probably our objective for the event in its initial year we’ll probably set a relatively low goal of $5,000 to $10,000. But hopefully it will become a signature annual event… You kind of have to establish yourself in that first year and really the goal is not to lose money.”
You said each volunteer has to go through 30 hours of training before they can represent a child on a case. Are there any other requirements?
“As long as you’re 21 (years old). They do run a background check, and they do an interview process. The local programs make a real effort to match the advocate with the case, and I think that gives people who are considering training to be an advocate a little more comfort. It’s also a really good fit for people who might feel a real heart for this work but aren’t in a position to foster a child. This gives you an opportunity to change a child’s life if you’re not in a position to foster.”
Can a volunteer take on more than one case at a time?
“It’s limited to two cases, but a case means a sibling set. So that might mean you have four kids in one case. But if you have one case with four, you wouldn’t likely get a second case. If you had one case with two, you might be asked. And then of course you always have the option to decline a case… But the limit is two cases.”
What’s the training like?
“It depends on the local program and it depends on what kind of training they’re offering. Some of them are two nights a week for six weeks. I think all of them are now offering a blitz training, which is three days. Our program in Clay County is doing a flex training, which is an online training. All of our training is the national CASA curriculum, and they’re actually releasing a revised curriculum at the end of June that we’re all about to be trained on.”
What’s different about the new training?
“It’s a little bit more case-based or problem-based. It’s really just a revised way of teaching the same topics, but more case-centered. So, more taking a real-life problem and teaching it that way.”
And what’s the current training like compared to that?
“It’s really a combination of that. It’s got some real-life problems but it’s a little more, straight facts: here’s what you’re going to encounter. Things like that. The training is really interactive. There’s a lot of role play. For example, they do staged inspections. So, when you go visit a home you know there’re certain things you’re looking for, so they’ll set up a false visit. People will act so we look for volunteers to be actors in some of these things… It’s good training they’ve focused a lot on adult learners and sort of how they learn differently so the training is really geared for that.”
How many children in the state go through cases like this, and how many volunteers does CASA Mississippi have to meet that need?
“Last year we served about 850 children. There are a little over 5,000. Of course, that number fluctuates. But on average it’s more than 5,000 in custody in the state. Our numbers look a little odd in we’re only in six counties but we’re serving a pretty significant number but we’re way far away from our goal. But, Harrison County has 780 kids in custody; Lafayette County has 16. So, we’re in the counties right now and we’re looking strategically to grow into counties where there’s a need.
“The reason we’ve got one though in Lafayette County starting up is that there’s a group there that’s interested and passionate about it. And they really are grassroots so they are their own independent 501c3. My role is to support them, but they’re not a member of us.”
What counties is the program currently serving?
“Jackson, Harrison, Hancock, Warren, Clay and Adams. And then the ones that are getting started are Marion County and Lafayette County. And then we are really hoping to get Hinds, Madison and Rankin. In fact, I’ve talked to a few folks and we’re holding a stakeholder meeting this summer... I’d like to bring all those people to the table, get the program up and started and then hopefully those volunteers can serve the tri-county area.”
Is there anything else people should know about CASA Mississippi?
“There are other ways to engage with CASA if you’re not interested in becoming an advocate. We’re looking for folks to help us with the event. We’re looking for — of course, financial stuff is great, but — for people who are interested in serving on the board of directors, serving on various committees... The important thing for me is for people to get together and talk about it with people that they know. Right now, it’s sort of new.”
For more information about CASA Missisippi, visit www.casams.org.