Foster care in North Mississippi will likely face some changes as the non-profit organization Court Appointed Special Advocates makes its way to Lafayette County.
CASA is a volunteer organization that helps foster children find homes. The program assigns advocates to foster children to stand for them in court and to ensure their safety in new homes.
Lafayette County will be the seventh county in the state to utilize CASA. Out of the previous six counties with CASA programs, Harrison County has the most advocates thus far, with 150 volunteers.
However, with 780 foster children, demand outweighs supply in Harrison County. The problem of inadequate advocate presence persists throughout the state and its 5,483 foster children.
As a result, CASA’s national sector charged the newest executive director of CASA Mississippi, Mary Largent Purvis, with re-energizing the state’s foster care program.
“Everywhere else, one in three kids has a CASA advocate, but here, it’s between one in six and one in eight,” Purvis said.
Former Memphis, Tennessee, CASA advocate Erin Smith teamed up with Purvis to get approval for Mississippi’s seventh county program.
After 15 years advocating for children in Memphis, Smith saw a need to bring CASA’s services to her next-door neighbors, and reached out to Purvis in an email.
“There’s not a program in North Mississippi, so the idea is to start here and expand to other counties,” Smith said.
Purvis and Smith’s program was approved by Oxford’s youth court last Friday.
“Our hope is that our program will grow to other counties, but primarily, the focus is to serve the children of Lafayette County,” Purvis said.
Smith said she already sees the necessary support pouring in to help build the program. Kortni Clemons, a longtime friend of Smith’s, said she was immediately interested in helping the organization.
“She told us what it was about, and I thought it was a great program and opportunity to help kids,” Clemons said.
Former Illinois resident Regina O’Connor said she’s waited for CASA to come to North Mississippi since she moved here in 2013. O’Connor is eager to volunteer for the program again.
“It’s a phenomenal program. Kids respond well to it, and foster parents respond well to it,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s a big benefit to the system.”
Members will spend the next four months building the Lafayette County CASA program by seeking out new trainers, advocates and directors as operations expand.
“We don’t have a targeted approach where the state comes in and says, ‘We think you should have CASA here,’” Purvis said. “It is a truly grassroots effort that requires the support of the community.”