CASA’s new director, Justin Buck

Helping meet the needs of at-risk children

Story by David Showers, photography by Richard Rasmussen

Story by David Showers, photography by Richard Rasmussen

Dismissed as hashtag activists who moralize in the name of raising social consciousness, Millennials are often criticized for the disconnect between the vigor with which they advertise their outrage and the energy they exert acting on it.

Justin Buck is a Generation Y’er who knows retweeting, clicking Like and dashing off pithy online posts don’t affect real change. Activism requires action, and the new director of the Garland County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is marshaling the community minded to serve as the shock troops of the child welfare system.

Buck caught the activism bug in high school serving as the community leadership workshop director and leadership seminar chair for the state’s Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization. With the economy still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Recession when Buck graduated college, he thought a career helping nonprofits made more sense than entering a for-profit job market over-saturated with recent college graduates competing for limited opportunities.

“When we went out and looked for a job, there weren’t any,” Buck, referring to Millennials, said. “And so if I’m not going to find a job anyway, I might as well do something that I actually want to do that’s going to make a difference instead of trying to find a job in a depressed job market.”

Buck channels his communication skills and the entrepreneurial spirit he cultivated accompanying his dad on sales calls as a kid into good works, specifically helping neglected and abused children who are underserved by a system that lacks the capacity to represent the interests of all its wards.

Into the breach steps CASA volunteers, court officers assigned to shepherd the most critical cases to a resolution that either returns children to their families or places them in a permanent, more stable environment. The stakes are high, Buck said, as those failed by the child welfare system too often graduate to the criminal justice system.

“If we don’t catch these children while they’re Ping-Ponging through the child welfare system, they’re going to fall through a crack, and the crack leads straight into the criminal justice system,” said Buck, who was an English teacher at Hot Springs High School prior to being downsized during the school district’s recent reduction in force. “If we don’t catch these children in foster homes and don’t get more foster homes, we’re going to build more jails.

“These problems are a result of generational and cyclical abuse, and addiction problems that lead into generational, cyclical poverty. We can interrupt that cycle.”

CASAs aren’t vanity volunteers who serve when the mood strikes them. Thirty hours of training are required before they’re sworn in, and working a case plan can take 10 to 15 hours a month for the duration of the 12- to 15-month process.

“It’s not feeding lunch at a soup pantry or scooping soup for a couple
hours,” Buck said. “It really does take a commitment. We try to make that pretty clear on the front end. It’s a big commitment.”

Home visits with parents whose children have been removed from their charge or who have conditional custody can be done in the evenings, but fitting a full-time work schedule around court dates is a balancing act that depends on understanding employers.

“We find a lot of employers are willing to be a little flexible on stuff like that when they know and understand their employee is contributing to a community organization that’s making a big difference in the lives of children,” Buck said. “I’d be willing to call anybody’s boss and let them know how badly we need advocates to stand up for these kids.”

CASAs are the backstops for the harried case workers in the state’s Division of Children and Family Services. Buck said five serve more than 200 Garland County children in foster care, and two manage 90 in Hot Spring County. It’s a ratio that’s unsustainable without CASAs alleviating some of the caseload.

“Without help from CASA, those children rely on DHS and DCFS,” Buck said. “Those case workers are absolutely dedicated. They’re the hardest working individuals I know. They’re just terribly underfunded, terribly understaffed and terribly underpaid.”

The more than 40 Garland County CASAs meet about half the county’s needs, but Buck hopes a new group of prospects set to be sworn in this month can help the organization do more. Those interested in serving can call the Garland County CASA office at 321-9269 or visit its website at http://www.garlandcountycasa.org.

Buck realizes not everyone has the time to be a CASA, but he encourages people to find a way to positively affect the lives of at-risk children.

“The old cliché is that it takes a village,” he said. “It really does take a whole system of nonprofits to meet the various needs of these kids.”

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