For advocate, Team CASA is a family affair

Hollie Mercier, center, and her sons Benjamin and Matthew.

Hollie Mercier, center, and her sons Benjamin and Matthew.

For Hollie Mercier, competing in Baltimore’s Running Festival as part of Team CASA is one of the few ways she can share the work she’s passionate about with her own sons.

Mercier is a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in the Frederick County Circuit Court system. At home, she’s not able to discuss the cases she works on.

But at the running festival, her boys, 14-year-old Benjamin and 11-year-old Matthew, and her husband, Keith, can see all of the other runners on Team CASA and hear about the work they do across the state.

“I love what I do,” said Hollie Mercier, who became an advocate and started running as part of Team CASA four years ago. “There are plenty of kids in the court system who could use an advocate. I’m very passionate about that.”

When a case comes to an advocate such as Mercier, authorities have already removed a child from their home for reasons of abuse or neglect, and attorneys for the state, parents and an attorney for the child are all working with a judge to settle the child’s living arrangements.

CASA volunteers serve as “the eyes and ears of the court,” ultimately preparing a report that looks at which placement is in the best interest of the child.

Patrick Seidl at the Maryland CASA Association’s state office said Team CASA’s running festival efforts have turned into the organization’s largest fundraiser.

There will be 165 registered runners this Saturday, and as of midafternoon Wednesday, the organization had raised $37,799 toward its $50,000 goal.

But fundraising is not the only draw of the festival — the team also sets up an awareness tent and has attracted new volunteers as a result of being involved in the festival.

The Maryland CASA Association has a goal to have a volunteer for every child in need by the year 2020.

Right now, there are programs in 20 counties and in the city of Baltimore.

Last year, there were 5,000 children under court protection in Maryland as a result of abuse and neglect, and an additional 3,000 receive in-home services.

And even though 1,200 CASA volunteers were able to advocate for more than 1,500 children last year, eight of 10 children the organization hopes to reach do not have advocates speaking up for their best interests to ensure their right to safe, permanent homes, Seidl said.

Jennifer Fuss, program manager for the county CASA program, which is run by the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, said the 45 volunteer slots in Frederick County and 30 slots in Carroll County are often filled, but the organization is always training new advocates.

In Frederick County, just over 100 children are under court protection as a result of abuse and neglect, and 70 were served by the organization in the past year.

Fuss will also be running with Team CASA this weekend, bringing her daughter along.

For Mercier, volunteering time with CASA has helped her settle into life in Frederick since the family moved here four years ago.

She was recently assigned to her third case and said she continues to learn and grow as an advocate by attending regular training sessions.

“It’s a constant growth process as an advocate,” she said.

Mercier continues to work with CASA for one primary reason: the children.

“It’s so important for a child to feel like there’s an adult in their corner. If they’ve been removed from a home, who’s that person?” she asked. “The advocate is that person.”

Source: The Frederick News Post, Danielle E. Gaines, 2015