To help children, CASA volunteers need to know where they're coming from

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CASA volunteers listen to a seminar on gangs and drugs Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library as part of their annual training. /Suzanne Marino CASA volunteers listen to a seminar on gangs and drugs Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library as part of their annual training. /Suzanne Marino EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – More than 40 people, most of them volunteers of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, spent last Saturday morning listening to a seminar on gang violence and drugs. The program was part of CASA’s ongoing education program offered to volunteers.

The nonprofit organization based in Somers Point advocates in court for children who have been placed in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect. Volunteers are assigned cases by a judge to help determine what is in the child’s best interests.

Their work involves research into the background of the case, a review of the documents, and interviews with the child and other people involved.

The goal is to help the child navigate the route to a safe and loving environment. According to CASA statistics, children who have a volunteer advocate spend 13 to 15 months in foster care, compared with the state average of 2.15 years for children without an advocate.

Karen DeRosa, CASA director of Community Development, said that after their initial training, volunteers must complete 12 hours of advanced training each year.

“We offer five annual advanced trainings for them to get their hours,” she said. “We hope the attendees come away with a better understanding of the topic discussed and are able to use that information to provide better service to the children on their cases.”

The program Saturday at the Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library was presented by Detective Brian Minkle of the New Jersey State Police. He said that while the Crips and Bloods might be gangs most people think are relegated to major cities, they exist right in their own backyards.

Minkle said the state police have monitored such gang activity in Atlantic and Cape May counties, and the Latin Kings are also a group with a regional presence.

An emerging gang, MS-13, is proving to be the deadliest of the gangs, he said. The members are often military trained, as many of them return from a stint in the Army, Marines or other branch of the military and then join a gang.

“Eighty-five percent of crimes are gang related,” he said, according to FBI statistics.

Gangs sometimes require members to pay weekly, and many steal, rob, intimidate or sell drugs to make the money, Minkle said.

He said gangs rely heavily on hand gestures and symbols for communication, as evidenced by the “war wall” in Camden – a solid wall of graffiti that warns rival gangs whose turf it is.

BK and CK are common tags on walls, he said. Those initials stand for Blood Killer and Crip Killer. Many of the people in attendance expressed surprise at the realization that they have seen those initials and now understand their chilling meaning.

After the presentation on gangs came the John Brooks Recovery Center of Atlantic City, an agency CASA works closely with on referrals when there is drug involvement with the child’s family.

Joanna Kirvin, the center’s manager of public relations and business development, said the center’s multi-day and residential programs help people with addictions manage their lives. “Our counselors work very hard to help clients learn to move forward with their lives,” said Kirvin. “If the children are placed back in the home with the parents, we want them to have the tools to know what to do.”

Recovery Center clients are required to take classes on health education, parenting and nutrition, she said.

CASA volunteers listen to a seminar on gangs and drugs Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library as part of their annual training./Suzanne Marino CASA volunteers listen to a seminar on gangs and drugs Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library as part of their annual training./Suzanne Marino Sue Buonomo, a counselor intern with the women’s day program, said she worked with a woman who was a nurse, married with three children, whose children were taken from her after she found herself abusing pain medication prescribed after a serious accident. After being released from jail, with the help of JBRC and a supportive family, she was reunited with her family, the counselor said.

DeRosa said the connection with JBRC is a good one to widen everyone’s circle of understanding of a child’s family situation.

Several CASA volunteers said after the morning seminar that they felt they had gained a better appreciation of the climate some children are coming from and the challenges they face on the home front.


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