By Hillary S. Meeks

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON – Hundreds of brown bags lined the sidewalk of the Children's Advocacy Center on Wednesday night, a lit candle in the bottom of each one.

The 685 luminarias were a physical representation of the spiritual and emotional light kept alive in children the Central Texas nonprofit agency helped in 2006.

Michelle Farrell, executive director of the center, said the event was held not only to honor those children but to raise community awareness about what the center does. The advocacy center's purpose is two-fold because it has combined efforts with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

CAC is what its board treasurer, Tom Meyer, calls a "multi-disciplinary" approach.

"Its focus is on not retraumatizing a victim by having to relive a traumatic encounter over and over," he said.

When children are removed from their homes because of abuse, they are brought by Child Protective Services to CAC. There, everyone who will be involved in the children's cases gets to hear the victims tell their stories, but the child only has to tell the story to a forensic interviewer.

Farrell explained that police, counselors, doctors, CPS workers and anyone else involved in the case can watch a video of the child being interviewed. As Meyer said, this keeps the child from retelling a painful story.

CASA steps in after the child is placed in a foster home. Farrell calls CASA volunteers the "one constant" in a foster child's life.

"They may move foster homes, get a different CPS worker, but that CASA volunteer stays the same," she said.

CASA volunteers are known as guardian ad litems, and their main goal is to give advice on the placement of the child victims. They spend at least 15 hours a month working on the child's case, which Farrell said could entail going to court, writing reports, spending time with the child's family and interacting with child.

"It's a very big job but a very rewarding job. They can work with the kids one-on-one, whereas a CPS worker may have 40 cases," she said.

Terrell Simmons has been a CASA volunteer for nine months, but plans to stay in the program for "at least 10 years." He chose to be a volunteer and complete the 30 hours of required training because he loves children and wants to make a difference in their lives.

"A child needs an adult to look out for their best interests, they need mentors. Especially these kids – they think everyone out there is bad, and it stops them from caring," he said.

Farrell said there is a shortage of CASA volunteers. With 1,595 confirmed victims of child abuse in Bell and Coryell counties each year, more people are always needed to lend a hand.

She said there are 30 counties in Region 7, and Bell County ranks second in the number of abused children out of those 30.

There will be a training session in June for prospective CASA volunteers. Those interested may call (254) 939-2946 and dial extension 1 or 4.

Contact Hillary S. Meeks at hmeeks@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7464

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