$20K Rotary grant to empower those 'lifting a child's voice'

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Foster children who depend on court advocates got a big boost from the Rotary Club of Warwick Thursday.

In the largest single charitable donation of recent times, the club matched an anonymous gift to present $20,000 to the Friends of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). Annually, the club’s charitable foundation gives out more than $10,000 to local non-profits plus another $5,000 in scholarships, which it will do again this year.

However, in addition to the customary level of gifting, the club voted to match the generosity of a member who has made prior $10,000 anonymous gifts, explained Anthony Bucci, chair of the club’s charity committee.

Chief Justice of Rhode Island Family Court Michael B. Forte, who addressed the club, left little doubt it was the proper decision. He said 11 lawyers are responsible for representing the interests of 2,700 abused, neglected and dependent children in the state. Augmenting this team are 305 volunteers who have been matched with 450 of those children.

Forte called the system “expensive and laborious” yet essential to representing the interests of the children who might otherwise be overlooked because of the set agendas of other parties. He said Kent County CASA volunteers outnumber those in other courts.

“They are not shy and we don’t want them to be shy…it’s important they are there with the interest for only the children,” he said.

According to CASA data, foster children are uprooted an average of three times over a 21-month period. The data also shows that foster children who stay with a single family for an extended period are more like to be adopted and succeed in school.

CASA volunteers are carefully screened and undergo about 30 hours of training. In order to be accepted in the program, volunteers must commit to serving at least 18 months. They must be 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, have a valid driver’s license and have effective communication and writing skills critical to the preparation of court documents, among other qualifications. Topping the list is a desire to help abused and neglected children maintain stability and permanency.

Forte said children quickly understand the role of their advocate and don’t hesitate to reach them when they need help. Forte said advocates appear in court and justices depend upon them to represent the child’s interest.

As the state does not provide funding for the children or the volunteers, Friends of CASA president Mark Hytha said the donation would flow to the Dreams for Children Fund. The fund is used the provide grants of up to $100 for children. With the Rotary contribution, Hytha said the friends would consider doubling the grants. He also wants to help volunteers who, in addition to committing their time, are faced with paying $55 for fingerprinting for background checks.

“We would like to reimburse them,” he said.

The friends depend on contributions and fundraisers to assist its programs, but a donation of this size is unusual.

“When I got the news, it was just unbelievable,” said Hytha.

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