Praise for special advocate: 'She made me a survivor'

courtesy of IndyStar

More than 350 people gathered Monday in the Statehouse to plead for more funding and volunteers for the state's court-appointed special advocate program. They are the voices for Indiana's most vulnerable children.

On Monday, more than 350 court-appointed special advocates melded those voices together during CASA Day at the Statehouse. They pleaded for more funding and volunteers.

"They're our children, and our children have needs," said Steve Overbey, a court-appointed special advocate who represents children in the child welfare system in Marion County. "We have to take care of them."

  Debby Gamache (left), a court-appointed special advocate, poses with Crystal Taylor, whom Gamache represented in the child welfare system. Taylor, now 21, read poems she had written about Gamache.     (Photo: Marisa Kwiatkowski / The Star)

Debby Gamache (left), a court-appointed special advocate, poses with Crystal Taylor, whom Gamache represented in the child welfare system. Taylor, now 21, read poems she had written about Gamache. (Photo: Marisa Kwiatkowski / The Star)

The Indiana Supreme Court, which funds and oversees the state's CASA program, had asked for an additional $2.1 million per year, but House legislators stripped it from the proposed state budget. The program's $2.9 million budget is the same as it was 2007, yet it serves children in 15 more counties.

State officials said they hope Indiana senators will agree to their request for additional funding.

"We're not going to let it go," Chief Justice Loretta Rush said Monday.

She said it was "not acceptable" for children to go unrepresented. Indiana law requires the appointment of either a guardian ad litem or a court-appointed special advocate, which is an unpaid volunteer, in child abuse and neglect cases.

In 2014, court-appointed special advocates represented 18,690 children in 77 counties and donated more than 346,700 hours. More than 4,000 Indiana children still are waiting for a volunteer to represent them.

Fourteen-year-old Danielle Todd said her court-appointed special advocate, Lee Ann Goeke, was the only familiar face in an ever-changing environment.

During her six years in the child welfare system, Danielle said, she bounced among 15 family case managers, six therapists and six foster homes. She said Goeke was her rock, the only adult who noticed her needs and nurtured them.

"She taught me that some people stay around and that she is worthy of my trust," Danielle said Monday during her speech at the Statehouse.

Danielle was adopted in 2013. She lives in Fountain City, where she is an honor roll student who participates in a variety of school activities. She said she'd like to become an attorney.

Crystal Taylor, 21, entered the child welfare system in 2009. For the first year, she said, she never saw her biological mother, nor her siblings, who had been placed separately. That changed when Debby Gamache was named as Taylor's court-appointed special advocate.

"She listened to me and genuinely cared about how my future would turn out," Taylor recalled. "She cared about me more than I cared about myself at that time."

Taylor, who aged out of the system, is working full time.

"She taught me how to survive," Taylor read Monday from a poem she'd written about Gamache. "She made me a survivor."

Call Star reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.

Become a volunteer advocate for children

Help children have a voice in child welfare cases. There aren't enough in Indiana. About 4,000 Hoosier children are waiting for a court-appointed special advocate. For information on how to become a volunteer, visit casa.in.gov or call (800) 542-0813.