TAMIU CJ Students Advocate for Abused, Neglected Children
Posted: 9/20/12

TAMIU CJ Students Advocate for
Abused, Neglected Foster Care Children

Jennifer Lerma; Amy Carrillo; Stephanie Diaz, Criminal Justice Association president, Elsa Tenorio; Elizabeth Ortiz, Claudia E. San Miguel
TAMIU Criminal Justice Association
Members Certified as CASA Volunteers

Five Texas A&M International University Criminal Justice Association students recently completed training and were certified as Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers. Participating in the new program, Co-CASA, are from left to right, Jennifer Lerma; Amy Carrillo; Stephanie Diaz, Criminal Justice Association president, Elsa Tenorio; Elizabeth Ortiz, Criminal Justice Association treasurer. Far right, TAMIU Criminal Justice Association advisor, Dr. Claudia E. San Miguel.

Thanks to a group of recently sworn-in volunteers from the Texas A&M International University Criminal Justice Association participating in a new program at Voz de Niños, four – 10 foster care children will now have Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers making sure the voices of abused and neglected children are heard in the courtroom.

“They are pioneering a new program for Voz de Niños and we’re really excited about this new program and the support the Criminal Justice Association has offered us,” said Alexis Herrera, volunteer coordinator, Voz de Niños.

The new program, Co-CASA, allows for two volunteers to work together as a team on one case.

Judges appoint CASA volunteers to certain cases that may have many facts and details and have to be fully understood before a recommendation can be given. CASA volunteers aid the court in making educated decisions about a child’s life, explained Herrera.

“Beginning in July, five members of the Criminal Justice Association volunteered with Voz de Niños and they spent numerous Saturdays training and learning about issues in child abuse and neglect. In the process, they received training to become CASA volunteers,” said Dr. Claudia E. San Miguel, associate professor/director, TAMIU College of Arts and Sciences Criminal Justice Program.

Earlier this month, Judge Paul Gallego certified Stephanie Diaz, Elizabeth Ortiz, Elsa Tenorio, Amy Carrillo, and Jennifer Lerma as CASA volunteers.

After they are certified, CASA volunteers interact with lawyers, teachers, counselors, foster parents, and biological parents to gather information about the child’s medical, educational, physical and emotional needs, and details about the child’s current home placement.

“They will be assigned a case involving alleged child abuse/neglect and their task will be to gather as much information as possible from and about the child. Then they will be ‘the voice’ of the child in court,” explained Dr. San Miguel.

According to Herrera, CASA volunteers are highly effective in having their recommendation adopted by the court.

Stephanie Diaz, TAMIU senior criminal justice major, said she became interested in becoming an advocate in order to get more of an understanding the criminal justice system.

“I also wanted to see how the law could help families, especially children who are abused and/or neglected. During training, I learned that I can make a difference to a child who is in need just by dedicating 10 – 15 hours a month by talking to the child and learning all I can about the child’s life,” Diaz said.

Even though the students initially went through the training to learn more about the criminal justice system, they realized that by volunteering a few hours a month, they could help a child in need, a family and even Child Protective Services caseworkers.

“This is a part of our governmental system that society wants to pretend doesn’t exist. There are thousands of children being abused and neglected everyday. Programs such as Voz de Niños aren’t getting enough recognition for what they’re doing to help the children,” said Elizabeth Pérez, TAMIU criminal justice graduate student.

“For anyone thinking about becoming an advocate, do it. This is an exceptional program that is in the child’s best interest. Trust me; you will change someone’s life,” she added.

Both students mentioned that after completing their training, which is part fun and part educational, they felt like they were making a difference.

“There are no excuses not to participate in this program. It is completely around your own personal schedule and anyone can make the time to help a child in need,” said Pérez.

“Because of Voz de Niños’ important mission in Webb County and because of the great experiences for our students, the Criminal Justice Association will continue to partner with the organization and encourage more students to become CASA volunteers,” said San Miguel.

Student volunteers help in other ways too.

“University students are also modeling behavior for CASA children. Children in foster care have disruptions to their education. Moving from one foster home to another does not make a stable learning environment,” said Herrera.

“All students and children, not just those in foster care, need encouragement and guidance, and University students have reached a level where they can offer words of advice and bridge partnerships for the best interest of children,” Herrera added.

There are currently 400 children in foster care waiting for a CASA volunteer.

For more information on Voz de Niños, visit vozdeninos.org

For more information, contact Dr. San Miguel at csanmiguel@tamiu.edu or call 956.326.2529.

University office hours are 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Friday.

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