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Liberty not immune to child abuse, neglect
Innocence lost
childabuse proclamation
Social services workers watching as Hinesville Mayor Tom Ratcliffe signs a proclamation naming April as National Prevent Child Abuse Month are Terri Liles, director of Helen’s Haven Child Advocacy Center, Deborah A. Sawyer, Liberty County DFCS social services program administrator and president of Prevention Child Abuse Liberty, and B.J. Pecenak, social services case manager at Liberty DFCS. The proclamation noted that while April puts emphasis on preventing child abuse, the issue should be a focus all year long. - photo by Photo by Don Melton at Classic 1-Hour Photo
A 3-year-old boy cries himself to sleep each night from lack of food. A 12-year-old girl wanders the streets  during the day instead of going to school. A family of four kids and two parents live in a bug infested, dilapidated trailer without running water.
While these stories of parental neglect are easy to imagine in Third World countries and some of the poorest cities in the United States, they are also a reality for many children right here in Liberty County.
“We are becoming a very diverse county and we have problems that are associated with diversity and an increasing population,” Liberty County Juvenile Court Judge Linnie Darden III said. “I’ve been on the bench for about seven years, and neglect and child abuse have remained a steady part of what’s going on.”
There are currently more than 100 children in foster care with the Liberty County Department of Family and Children Services, most of them have been victims of child abuse or neglect.
As the juvenile court judge, Darden is the ultimate decision maker in whether many of these children are returned to their families or remain in the foster care system.
“Sometimes I’ll determine that the children are to remain in the care of the department if they’ve been removed from the home temporarily,” he said. “In most cases, we establish a reunification plan to reunite the children with their parents.”
Before Darden makes his determination, however, he said Atlantic Area Court Appointed Special Advocates play a key role in helping him make his decision.
The Atlantic Area CASA is an organization that works to ensure children in Liberty and Long counties “do not languish in the foster care system,” according to director Irene McCall.
The group is staffed by local, volunteer case managers who gather information from family members, teachers, neighbors and other sources close to children and their families to assist judges in making decisions in foster care cases.
According to Darden, the volunteers are an important independent voice in what are normally adversarial proceedings between lawyers for parents and DFACS.
“CASA gives a voice for the court to listen to where a judge can get an idea from someone who has no axe to grind in the case and only cares about the best interest of the children,” he said.
“We find that a lot of times we can be a resource of new information, also,” McCall said.
Unfortunately, keeping and gaining volunteers continues to be a problem for CASA.
“We normally start out with about six volunteers in our first training class, but once people get in and start seeing the training they say it’s not what they really thought it was going to be,” McCall said, noting the organization’s tough character and instruction standards.
The director said she “would love to have 100 percent representation for all of the children in foster care,” but present staffing only allows CASA to handle a caseload of 54 children.
Volunteer Mary Hall said she hopes as more people become aware of the problem of neglect and abuse in the area, they will want to get involved, despite the stringent requirements.
“Neglect is on the rise and it just grieves my heart,” she said. “If people can take just three hours a day to give to a child, they should get involved with CASA.”
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