The only executive director Hall-Dawson CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) has ever known is retiring at the end of the month.
Connie Stephens has been with the Gainesville-based organization for 27 years, starting as a volunteer in 1990, Later that year, Dena Maxwell, who was CASA's first Coordinator, moved out of state and Stephens was hired as Program Coordinator and in 1993 was named Executive Director.
"After a 27 year journey of protecting children, I have the privilege of seeing many of those resilient children grow up and break the cycle of abuse," Stephens said in a recent interview. "One of my first CASA kids was a 10-year-old female who was removed from her home due to neglect. Today she is a wonderful mother raising three children. The oldest is in college at Truitt McConnell (in Cleveland). That brings me joy beyond the recognition or a pay check. Breaking the cycle will impact future generations. That has been my passion and commitment, as well as for many others in this community"
Twenty six years ago, from her kitchen table, Connie says she knew she could not do this alone.
"This community came to the rescue by way of hundreds of volunteers, board members, supporters, donors, judges and passionate staff," she says. "I am absolutely amazed by the support. It truly takes a village to raise a child! We have come a long way from the kitchen table. Today, we have a wonderful home called the Little House that we share with the Edmondson Telford Center for Children. Last year, we served the lives of over 539 children, we have eight staff members including two attorneys on staff."
Stephens was the first CASA Program Director to serve on the National CASA Board, was awarded the Liberty Bell Award by the Gainesville-Northeastern Bar Association in 1995, the National CASA Program Director of the Year Award in 2007, and the John Jacobs Youth Service Award, the highest honor the Gainesville Kiwanis Club can bestow.
Stephens has not been alone is racking up kudos for her work through the years. She's quick to point out that the agency, itself, has had its share of accolades:
*Program of Excellence by the Georgia Department of Human Services
*Innovative Affiliate Award in 2013 for the building of the Little House, home to CASA and the ET Center for Children.
*The first CASA in the state to apply for federal funding.
*The 2016 Established Affiliate Award of Excellence.
And, Stephens added "We are so proud of our very own CASA's Seth and Cathy Vining for being chosen as the Georgia CASA State Volunteers of the Year award and will be recognized at the National CASA Conference later this year in Washington."
Has the mission of the agency changed over the years?
"Our mission has not changed. However, the organization has grown to meet the needs of the children we serve. We are a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide trained, screened and supervised CASA Volunteers who advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected children. The purpose of CASA is to provide a voice for children in court and to present the best interest of the child before the court, the social service system, and community service providers, thus assuring the child’s right to an appropriate placement and a permanent home."
She said volunteers are the "real heroes" at CASA.
"I cannot say enough about our CASA Volunteers. They are the real heroes. If you recognize anyone (as part of this story), it should be our CASAs. CASA Volunteers provide free criminal justice representation and advocacy to children who are victims of physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect. We currently have 138 Active Volunteers and 110 In-Active Volunteers. These folks are the heart and soul of the organization. They spend countless hours and drive many miles without compensation to ensure the children are safe and protected."
And, she says there's an ever-increasing need for the services the agency provides.
"We have averaged an increase in children being removed from their home each year due to abuse and neglect. Our cases in the last year have increased at alarming rates. The sad reality is that these children need homes. We have a huge shortage of foster home in Hall and Dawson counties. Last year, 2015, the juvenile courts referred 539 children to our program needing CASA services. Our primary focus remains on the protection of children between birth to 18 years of age who have been abused or neglected and enter the juvenile court through no fault of their own. All our referrals come from the juvenile courts of Hall and Dawson. The children we serve are often abandoned, in foster care, victims of physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect. The CASA program ensures a consistent focus on the child’s well being, safety and permanency. We also focus on working with the families to build capacity with the goal of ensuring a safe and permanent environment for the children."
Stephens says CASA helps children from all walks of life who are caught in abusive situations that stem from any number of factors.
"Almost every day we hear about a child that has been mistreated, abused or even murdered. Through the eyes of an abused child, life can be frightening. Drug abuse is on the increase. Often, children are betrayed by the one they love and depend on the most for nurturing and stability. The family and children we serve are from high-risk family environments that include factors that indicate risk for child abuse and neglect such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, unstable housing, employment, developmental disabilities, economically disadvantaged, school dropouts, and mental illness. Many of our families have poor parenting skills, children with disabilities, children with behavioral issues, teens having babies and children who are failing in school."
She says that by addressing the needs of these children, the community will see tangible benefits in the children's present lives as well as the impact made for generations to come. Stephens said stopping the cycle of abuse will benefit the community as a whole and countless lives of innocent children.
"Children should not have to worry about where they will live," she emphasized, "the next meal they may get, being left unsupervised, having a safe place to lay their head at night, the fear of being left with strangers, exposed to drugs, domestic violence and child abuse. All children need a safe, permanent, and loving home. No child deserves less!"
Stephens says community support, not just through volunteers, but in other ways is a key to the success of CASA.
"Our agency, through the generous support of this community, helps provide for the needs of the children we serve. Often these children are removed from their home with a few clothes in a garbage bag. They may need clothes, shoes, medical care, dental care, counseling, tutoring, a bed, money for basketball camp, school sports, school pictures. All those things that we provide for our own children."
Regarding her future plans, Stephens says "Even though I may retire, I am still passionate about CASA! I will continue to manage two federal grants for Hall-Dawson CASA. I am looking forward to spending more time with family, my five grandchildren, traveling, reading, volunteering, painting and cleaning out closets that desperately need it. CASA has been my purpose and passion in life. It has been an honor and privilege to serve as director for the past 26 years. This program and the folks associated with CASA will always have a very special place in my heart. I am grateful to this community for your support of our children. America's greatest resource is our children. The power of one can change the world. God has a purpose for each of our lives. For me, it was speaking up for the orphans. I will forever be a voice for these children. That will never change!"
“'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,'” she concluded, quoting noted anthropologist Margaret Mead.
For more information about Hall-Dawson CASA, visit http://www.halldawsoncasa.org.