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Volunteer honored for his service

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By John Barnhart

A local Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) has been awarded a couple of special honors for his volunteer work.

Leslie "Sandy" Morrissett won the top honor, this spring, among 10 Central Virginia CASAs who received a President's Volunteer Service award. This is a national honor that recognizes volunteer service and Morrissett, a Moneta resident, logged 313 volunteer hours with Bedford's CASA office last year.

This averages 26 hours per month. He was also cited by the Family & Children's Trust Fund. The Trust Fund is governed by a board of trustees appointed by the governor to raise and distribute funds to organizations that deal with family violence. It provides funds to the CASA program.

CASA volunteers have been trained to be advocates for children who are victims of abuse and neglect. When such a case comes to court, the judge can appoint one of these advocates to represent the child's best interests in court.

The volunteer's job is to carefully research the child's background and make a recommendation to the court. This helps the judge make a sound decision about the child's future. The CASA volunteer stays with the case until it is permanently resolved.

Morrissett originally retired in Florida after 25 years in real estate development. That's where he first got involved with CASA in 1996, although it wasn't called by that name in Florida.

"It was pretty intense down there," he said.

That was because there was a serious shortage of volunteers and the case load was heavier. There was also a shortage of lawyers willing to do guardian ad litem work. A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed by the court to represent the child's interests. The shortage meant that the volunteers did a lot of the work that an attorney would normally do in Virginia.

In Virginia, the CASA does not get involved in a great deal of legal detail. Morrissett said that this is better because CASAs are not licensed to operate as attorneys. Here, they work with the guardian ad litem, gather information and report to the juvenile and domestic relations court judge. The goal is to provide the judge with information gathered from an independent, unbiased viewpoint. The only person whose side the CASA is on is the child's.

He ended up in the Smith Mountain Lake area because he and his wife were looking to move to some place that wasn't as hot as Florida. They also wanted to be near the water and near mountains. A leisurely drive on the way to a family reunion being held in Lynchburg took him across Hales Ford Bridge.

"I drove across the bridge and said 'Boy, this really feels good'," he said.

The couple built a house and moved here just after the turn of the century. Then, he began looking around for a program similar to the one in which he served in Florida and discovered CASA.

"Gee, this is great, they have it in the county I moved to," he recalled thinking.

Most CASAs have a maximum of two active cases at a time, but a single case could have as many as six to eight children. Actually, two cases per CASA is the limit that the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services allows although Angela Skarp, the Bedford advocate manager, said that she can get authorization for a heavier case load.

Skarp notes that Morrissett is one of the volunteers most willing to take cases with multiple children involved. This could mean four children in four different locations. Morrissett's two current cases involve children spread form Radford to Richmond. He generally drives between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per year doing CASA volunteer work.

"Sometimes you have three or four fathers," Morrissett noted.

Children who have been removed from a home are placed with relatives whenever possible and these relatives may be in other states. In one case he found himself having a phone conversation with a couple in Louisiana at 11 p.m. Morrissett said that he tries not to disturb people at work.

Why does he do this?

"I've always loved kids," he said in reply to this question. " I really wasn't interested in playing golf and tennis all the time."

He also noted that he is being productive by doing this. He's helped children, he's helped families and he's provided information to help the court.

Satisfaction comes from getting children into a safe, secure permanent home. Morrissett said that some volunteers have retained relationships with children they have helped for a decade.

"How many other people do you know who can do that?" he asked.

Morrissett had a busy weekend with children, only his relationship with them is of a different sort. He and his wife Becky have a blended family of seven children and 13 grandchildren.

"They all converge around the 4th of July," he commented.

The Bedford CASA office is looking for some additional volunteers and a training class is scheduled to start on Thursday, Aug. 28. Classes will be held at Central Virginia Community College's Lynchburg campus every Thursday night from 5:30 until 8:30 p.m. An independent study program is also available. For more information, call Skarp at (540) 586-4932 or e-mail her at Angela@cvcasa.org. You can also call the Lynchburg CASA office at (434) 528-2552 or go to the Web site at www.cvcasa.org.