The sea of cheerful blue pinwheels in Lower Courthouse Park has a sobering purpose.

Each of those 3,000 pinwheels represents a call to Rock County Social Services reporting suspected child abuse and the possibility that a childhood has gone terribly wrong.

On Saturday, CASA of Rock County held Pinwheels for Prevention, an event designed to raise public awareness of child abuse and neglect and to engage the community in prevention and support programs. Saturday’s event was one of many held nationwide.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges and watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. Each volunteer focuses on one child and tries to be a consistent presence in the child’s life.

The day also served as a celebration of CASA volunteers and foster parents, people who form a critical fiber of the social safety net.

Out of the 3,000 calls to child protective services, about 1,800 of those are “screened in” for investigation, CASA program director Sandy Johnson said.

Of those, about 147 end up in the court system, Johnson said.

“I call them the children in the shadows, the children behind the scenes,” Johnson said.

She wants that sea of blue pinwheels to remind people that it does happen here and that their help is needed.

The need for CASA volunteers and foster parents has grown quickly in the last few years, Johnson said. Consider:

  • In 2005, CASA had six volunteers. Those volunteers and staff served 10 children. There was no waiting list.
  • By 2010, CASA had 33 volunteers. Advocates and staff served 48 kids, and two children were on a waiting list.
  • In 2015, a judge decided every child should have the benefit of an advocate. That year, 24 volunteers and staff served 48 children, leaving 60 children on a waiting list.
  • In 2018, CASA had 55 volunteers who served 141 children, while another 162 were on a waiting list.

The opioid/heroin epidemic has contributed to the number of children needing services, Johnson said.

In an email to the Gazette, Johnson outlined some of the other issues facing Rock County youth, including an inadequate number of foster homes, which results in children being placed in homes outside the county or sibling groups being divided up; high caseloads for social workers in Child Protective Services; a heavy caseload in the court system; waiting lists for addiction and mental health services; and affordable housing.

Becoming a CASA volunteer requires about six to eight volunteer hours every month, Johnson said.

Kim Hubanks has been serving as one of those volunteers. For her, the effort is worth it when a child says, “This is my CASA volunteer and we do a lot of fun things together.”

She’s planning to pursue a career in human services. So why this volunteer job? And this profession?

Helping kids in need has to start somewhere and with someone, Hubanks said.

And she figured that person was her.