CASA for Kids of East Texas reports a rise in the number of kids who need their help.

The non-profit serving Smith, Wood and Van Zandt counties provides Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) to children removed from their homes due to suspected abuse or neglect.

As a foster child goes through the court system, their CASA serves as guardian ad litem.

“The guardian ad litem builds a relationship with the child,” said executive director Mary Jo Burgess. “They have to instill trust and that's quite a challenge.”

Meanwhile CASA is facing a challenge of its own.

In 2016, CASA's caseload across all three counties grew by a total of 12% compared to 2015.

According to Burgess, a majority of the extra cases originated in Van Zandt County – where 38% more children needed a volunteer advocate in 2016 than the year prior.

“We know that most of our cases it's stemming from drug abuse and it's actually neglect,” said Burgess.

Amid the recent spike, CASA added an assistant director and case supervisor dedicated to Van Zandt County. They are also seeking additional volunteers there.

“It's a significant drain on our resources: manpower and financial resources,” Burgess said. “So we really have to get out in our community and recruit volunteers.”

She also started a movement to reverse the trend in Van Zandt County.

“It was really hitting my heart, and I wanted to dig a little deeper and try to combat that rising number,” Burgess said.

She started Impact Van Zandt in 2016 – bringing CASA, Child Protective Services, county judges and other child advocates together to work toward a solution and educate the community on preventing abuse and neglect.

“Eventually we'll be working on ways to provide resources to families to keep them healthy and strong and see these numbers decline,” said Burgess.

Click here to learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or click here to submit a tip online. Call 911 if you have an urgent or life-threatening situation.