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VOL. 122 | NO. 123 | Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Though COMEC and CASA Shifted From Juvenile Court, No Hard Feelings

By Rosalind Guy

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OFF THE DOCKET: Nonprofit children's service organizations CASA and COMEC must leave their longtime offices in Juvenile Court by Oct. 1. The shuffle is happening because of an expansion to the court's child-support division. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

Two organizations dedicated to helping children in need soon will be without a place to call home.

Juvenile Court officials have served CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and COMEC (the Commission on Missing and Exploited Children) notice that they must vacate their free office space in the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County by Oct. 1. The nonprofit children's service organizations have to leave because of an expansion of the court's child-support division.
As part of the expansion, court officials plan to hire new attorneys, case workers and clerical staff members to help manage the 122,000 or so cases the court handles each year.

Both COMEC and CASA have been housed in Juvenile Court at no cost for more than 20 years.

"Clearly, we would hope that we would have that space available (by Oct. 1), because we've also got to then renovate space and make sure that we're meeting the needs of staff that we're bringing into those areas," said Jeune Wood, Juvenile Court chief administrative officer. "But certainly we'll work with COMEC and CASA. We're not just going to set them out on the front door step Oct. 1. We've been long practice partners for many, many years."

Expanding and contracting

Wood pointed out that both organizations provide "very necessary services to the children and families in the area" and that the work of both is closely aligned with the work of the court, so court officials will help in any way possible to make the transition a smooth one.

Juvenile Court officials plan to go before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners' budget committee in coming weeks to ask for $1.7 million to help fund the expansion.

If they're successful, the funding will furnish 25 new salaried positions with benefits. It also will pay for utility costs for the court, mileage for workers and will provide secure-transport vehicles for the court.

Before the proposal is presented, it must be determined how much Juvenile Court Clerk Steve Stamson's staff will need for its expansion.

"The budget has been approved by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, technically," Wood said. "There have been additional funds set aside by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that we're still working through, not only relative to our budget proposal but also relative to some recommendations that are fairly compatible with what the court had already put forward anyway in terms of needs that are upheld by the National Center for State Courts recommendations, and, frankly, even some of the recommendations that came out of the Juvenile Court ad hoc committee."

Juvenile Court already received support from state legislators who, earlier this month, gave the court a $3 million increase for its child support enforcement division.

The court's child support division collects payments from non-custodial parents and provides counseling services.

Wood said most of the existing child support collection staff is housed at an offsite annex in the Lipscomb-Pitts Insurance building on Union Avenue Extended.

Most of the child support enforcement work is done electronically now - by phone and computer. Those workers will remain at the offsite location.

The only child support staffers who will remain in the Juvenile Court building are those who will be seeing clients in person. Juvenile Court also will continue to house the attorneys assigned to the child support enforcement division.

Spaces and places

Though eviction notices usually tend to stir up feelings of tension and animosity, none of either is involved in this instance, officials from CASA, COMEC and Juvenile Court agreed.

Juvenile Court has been donating office space to both nonprofit organizations for more than 20 years. But because of the influx of staff the court expects to hire within the next few months, they need all the space they have.

Wood said the space will be used for various new employees who will be working with the court services division, youth services bureau, the Office of Clinical Services and other divisions at the court.

COMEC officials have sent out a plea to their friends and supporters to help them find new office space.

"We have about six full-time employees," said Tran Bui, president of COMEC's board of directors. "So, we need about 750 to 1,000 square feet of space."

Keisha Walker, executive director of CASA, said she and other CASA officials have been looking at spaces and have appointments set up. But the overall goal is to try to remain as close to Juvenile Court as possible.

"Because obviously we provide a vital service to the court and it's inherent that we try to be as close to the court as possible," Walker said. "But the goal is to not to have to go (farther) than the Midtown area."

Walker's organization also is looking for a space that is about 1,000 square feet.

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