More volunteers are needed to help prevent child abuse and neglect within Peoria and surrounding counties
After 8-year-old Navin Jones of Peoria died due to abuse and neglect, many Peorians are shocked and want to lend a hand— but might not know how.
Mike Murphy is a recruitment coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, a volunteer organization that advocates for children experiencing abuse or neglect within the court system of Peoria, Tazewell, Marshall, Stark, and Putnam counties.
He said CASA volunteers are appointed by a judge, and only assigned one case per person, though that case could have multiple siblings. From there, they work to become knowledgeable of the child’s situation, and be the best advocate for what that child may need. In the case of Navin Jones, there’s no telling what could have happened if a volunteer was assigned to him, according to Murphy.
“What a difference that case could have possibly had, had a CASA been assigned to it to kind of have that extra set of eyes on there, and you know that's really kind of what we’re there to do is just observe. We build a relationship with these children. We’re there to not only write these reports, but we’re building…trust with these kids.”
Going through abuse and neglect is obviously a traumatic experience, and for most children so is moving through several foster homes and having multiple case workers assigned to them. This constant change and introduction to new people can be scary.
Murphy said this is why having a CASA volunteer stand in as a familiar face can be so critical to a child’s well-being.
“The CASA worker is going to stay with that child throughout that entire process,” he said.
What is determined to be best for a child is ultimately up to the judge, and could involve a variety of things, all depending on the unique circumstances of each case. Murphy said in many cases, the ultimate goal is reunification with the biological family. But if that’s not possible, CASA volunteers are prepared to make recommendations for permanency in another area.
What makes child abuse and neglect cases so difficult is abuse can be hard to spot, and easy to hide or make excuses for.
“When there is abuse going on in those homes, they try to do a lot to hide that…whether it be keeping children in long sleeved coats, or maybe the child is asleep when you come for the visit so don’t go in to disturb them, or they’re sick,” Murphy explained.
He said while not all of those examples are always used as an excuse, it’s important to pick up patterns that hinder people from seeing or hearing from the child. It’s equally as important to notice the more obvious signs of abuse and neglect.
“Bruising, or possibly not being fed, poor hygiene…those are things you can kind of start to notice and observe, but sometimes they’re subtle things,” Murphy said.
These subtle changes are often behavioral, like if a child was once very outgoing and talkative and is now acting reserved. In those cases, it’s important to step in and question the situation, and above all, Murphy said if you see something, say something.
“They can contact DCFS through the hotline calls, there's many organizations that they can reach out to, and we have a lot of resources here in the community to help with that process, too,” he said.
Many times people are hesitant about knowing if the time is right to speak up, or feel guilty for intertwining themselves into another family’s business. However, if something even remotely feels off, it’s important to be a voice for a child who can’t speak for themselves.
“It doesn’t mean that you’re going to have that child taken away that day from a family. What’s going to happen if you make that… DCFS hotline call, they’re going to look into it. They're going to investigate it, and they’re going to say, 'Okay, there seems to be something to this, we’ll send someone out to investigate'…You’re not going to hurt someone by doing that, but what you could be doing by not saying something could hurt them,” said Murphy.
The reality is that child abuse and neglect is not some big city problem. If there’s anything the Navin Jones case has shown, it’s that even the most severe cases can and are happening right here in our backyards.
“We actually have more children per capita than Cook County does of children who are in care, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” said Murphy.
Currently, there are more than 1,800 pending child abuse and neglect cases within all five area counties, and most of those are located within Peoria County. CASA is only able to serve a third of those cases due to lack of volunteers. That’s why Murphy said that especially during the month of April, which is national child abuse prevention month, the most impactful way to make a difference is to become a CASA volunteer.
Murphy can speak from personal experience on how a volunteer can impact his own foster children’s lives. Before he started working for CASA, Murphy was a foster parent to four children, two of whom were assigned a CASA volunteer. He said the night and day difference between the children who had a volunteer and the children who didn’t was paramount.
“What it does when you have a CASA volunteer advocating for them, writing these extra reports that the judge can see, it makes things run just a little bit faster. There’s not as much delay…Our children, because they’ve gotten to build that relationship with these volunteers, they learn how to trust and confide in people, and those are life skills that help them…they’re very easy to become adoptable at that point too…It just makes them a little bit more advantaged than maybe someone who is going through a traumatic experience that doesn’t have that kind of support,” Murphy said.
Above all, it takes a community to prevent and stop child abuse, he said. Creating awareness around what’s happening within our own community, and pledging to trust your instincts and report it when something may seem off are the first steps to creating a healthier environment for children to grow up in.
Find more information on how to become a CASA volunteer here.