Every child deserves to know someone cares about them and wants them to live a happy, healthy life.
Sadly, not all children are provided the best beginning. More than 500 children in the Yakima Valley each year are abused or neglected. They are left defenseless and have no way to share their concerns or burdens.
When authorities step in, those children need a voice. Children older than 12-years-old are appointed legal representation. Those under the age of 12 often do not have a voice.
That's when a court appointed special advocate, also known as guardian ad litem, steps in.
Vianca Herrera is a court appointed special advocate working with the Yakima County Juvenile Court. She said most advocates working with children locally are volunteers. They help neglected and abused children who have been the target of domestic violence or other abuse.
Herrera said advocates gather information about each child's case that will help them meet the needs of the child. That may involve talking with the foster parents, counselors, school staff and any other adults involved in the child's life.
She said an advocate finds the resources needed to help the child through the healing process, contacting such groups as Comprehensive Mental Health or Lower Valley Crisis and Support Services.
"The advocate is often the one person who remains constant through the process from when the child is removed from an abusive situation to when the child is in a permanent, caring environment," said Herrera.
She said advocates speak with the attorneys and case workers involved in the case, as well.
"It's often about asking the right questions, finding the positive influences in a child's life," said Herrera, stating an advocate can help the courts decide whether an environment is healthy for the child.
She said not all children have extended family to help them when they have been neglected or abused.
The number of children in need of court appointed advocates is staggering, said Herrera, who noted the Court Appointed Special Advocates program is currently seeking volunteers.
She said there are a number of factors that may or may not lead to a child becoming neglected or abused. She said a cycle of abuse, substance abuse and a lack of coping skills are all among the factors that lead adults to abuse children.
Those adults are subject to court-ordered programs. The children, however, can be overlooked without an advocate in their corner.
Herrera said sometimes adults don't realize the child's torment and suffering and how it affects them.
"Children who act out or misbehave may be showing behavior resulting from abuse," she said, stating other children sometimes become withdrawn.
"Being an advocate helps the child...it is ensuring the child is not overlooked while the adults work on complying with court services," said Herrera.
To learn more about becoming a volunteer advocate, contact Herrera at 509-574-2131 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.