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Protecting our most vulnerable kids

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By The Staff

Our children can often bear the brunt during tough economic times. Moms or dads may be out of work. Money is tight. Stress due to financial pressures mounts. The chances of children in at-risk families being victimized tend to increase.

In Colorado each year, more than 50,000 reports of child abuse and neglect are filed and more than 11,000 children enter foster care. In 2009, Jefferson County ranked fifth in the state for the number of abuse and neglect filings. Although that ranking is down a notch from the previous year, the ranking is both alarming and unacceptable.

As tough economic times continue, these numbers could rise as the resources to serve abused and neglected children shrink. Now more than ever, we must invest in protecting our children. Not only is there a moral and ethical imperative, but there’s an economic one, too. There are nearly 13,000 children in out-of-home placements. The cost to taxpayers for each one of those children: $2,075 a month.

A 2007 study by Prevent Child Abuse America estimates the annual cost of child abuse and neglect is a staggering $103.8 billion. One-third of that amount is in direct costs such as hospitalization, mental health care, child welfare services and law enforcement. The remainder is in indirect costs — special education, juvenile delinquency, mental health, health care and the adult criminal justice sys0tem.

We urge our elected officials, business leaders and community members to take note of the considerable economic and human impact of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, or CASA. Each of these unpaid volunteers commits dozens of hours monthly to abused and neglected children. They not only help work toward a positive outcome for the children they serve, but also contribute time and money worth millions to our state each year.

CASA of Jeffco/Gilpin Counties relies on 200 highly trained volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children (www

.casajeffcogilpin.com). Our organization is part of national CASA, which has more than 60,000 volunteers in communities across the country (www.casaforchildren.org).

CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to serve as independent investigators and advocates for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. They can make all the difference in the young lives they serve.

According to an audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice of the Inspector General, cases involving a CASA volunteer are more likely to be permanently closed. Fewer than 10 percent of children with a CASA volunteer re-enter the foster care system. The same audit reports children with a CASA volunteer are half as likely to spend time in long-term foster care as children without a volunteer.

The need for volunteers in Jefferson and Gilpin counties has never been more urgent. Currently, we are only addressing 25 percent of all abuse and neglect cases filed in our community.

The call for volunteers is especially noteworthy because April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month — an important reminder to protect the most vulnerable children in our communities and to recognize the signs of stressed parents in need of help.

We need your help. Consider becoming a CASA volunteer. We provide extensive training and on-the-spot assistance. The rewards of serving as a voice for our community’s children most in need are immeasurable. To learn more about volunteering, visit www.CASAJeffcoGilpin.com.

The results for kids — and ultimately our community — are good. So are the results for taxpayers. It costs only $80 a month per child for a CASA volunteer’s services. That’s a modest investment compared to the cost of keeping a child in foster care for another month.

Here’s another way to think about it. If all children in out-of-home placement in Colorado were to spend an average of one month less in care, that would mean a savings of more than $26 million annually to taxpayers.

Please get involved. Consider becoming a CASA volunteer and making a difference in the life of child … and your community.

Leah Varnell is the executive director and Jan Podoll is the board president of CASA of Jefferson and Gilpin Counties.