Elizabeth Hiatt helps kids in crisis

Elizabeth Hiatt April 2009 cover story. Photos by Rainy Chastine

Elizabeth Hiatt April 2009 cover story. Photos by Rainy Chastine

Elizabeth Hiatt moved to Fayette County in 1984 when there was nothing but a Hardees and Partner’s Pizza, she says. Her parents had to compensate her for the move from Clayton County to the “dull” Fayette County, where she attended McIntosh High School, by allowing her to get her ears double-pierced. Elizabeth never dreamed she would move back to Peachtree City after college, but she has. Her younger sister teases her as she drives her son to soccer practice in her minivan. “I swore I’d never do it,” Elizabeth laughs. She now recognizes the opportunities she was given growing up, and she wants to provide the same to her son. However, Elizabeth is not just providing opportunities to her own son. She is dedicated to improving her community and making a difference in the lives of others.

After graduating from Berry College in Rome, Ga., in 1989 with a degree in psychology and minors in child development and sociology, Elizabeth traveled to Germany where she worked as a missionary for a year. She describes the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, visiting Austria and skiing in the Italian Alps. Elizabeth toys with the idea of returning to missionary work when her son is grown, but in the meantime her work in Fayette County is just as meaningful. Elizabeth serves as the advocacy coordinator for Advo-kids CASA, Inc., the local chapter of the national CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA is a non-profit organization that trains and appoints volunteers to speak for children’s best interests in juvenile court proceedings. “We are the eyes and ears of the court, and we are the voice for the child,” says Elizabeth.

Since abused or neglected children rarely attend the court hearings that often have  a great impact on their lives, CASA volunteers attend the proceedings and make recommendations to the court on their behalf. Unlike full-time case workers, who are often busy tending to 50 cases at one time and do not always have time to devote consistent one-on-one attention to each child they represent, a CASA volunteer generally only works with one child at a time and continues to advocate for that child until his or her case is closed.

CASA volunteers meet face-to-face with the child they represent at least once a month, providing a sense of consistency in the child’s life and making sure the child is living in a safe environment.

One of the protective factors against child abuse is having a consistent adult figure in the child’s life, says Elizabeth, and that is what CASA offers children. In one case, a child was moved five times in one year, but a CASA volunteer was there throughout each move and helped ease the child into each new setting.

As advocacy coordinator, Elizabeth is responsible for training the CASA volunteers. They generally meet twice a week for three hours over a period of five weeks. The goal of the training is to achieve cultural competency. Elizabeth recognizes that she, like her volunteers, was given many opportunities and a great deal of support throughout her life, while many of the families involved in the court cases were not. Her goal is to train the volunteers not to instill their middle class values into others. Some people leave the training session feeling like they got a bachelor’s degree in the real world, says Elizabeth.

CASA volunteer Dianne Prager has been advocating for a young girl for the past two years. The child has been moved eight times during that time, and each time Prager was there to make sure her school records were transferred and she received the services she needed. When children like the child for whom Prager advocates are involved in programs like speech therapy, the services are sometimes overlooked when they are moved into new school systems. Prager, a retired educator, has seen many foster children make their way through the school system. They would be at school one day, and then the next day they had moved, she says. Before becoming a CASA volunteer, Prager considered attending law school with the intention of advocating for children, but CASA has allowed her to do so in an effective and personal way. “This is exactly what these kids need,” she says.

Elizabeth and some of the CASA volunteers at CASA Day at the Capital, February 2009.  “We had a great time meeting with Representatives Virgil Fludd and Ronnie Chance,” says Elizabeth. From left to right:Barbara Hutchinson, Marsha Nearman, Elizabeth Hiatt, Virgil Fludd, Nancy Nebergall, Judy Moan.

Elizabeth and some of the CASA volunteers at CASA Day at the Capital, February 2009. “We had a great time meeting with Representatives Virgil Fludd and Ronnie Chance,” says Elizabeth. From left to right:Barbara Hutchinson, Marsha Nearman, Elizabeth Hiatt, Virgil Fludd, Nancy Nebergall, Judy Moan.

In addition to offering consistency and support to children, CASA volunteers make sure that the child is in a safe environment. If the volunteer visits the child and sees immediate danger or evidence of drugs in the home, he or she will call Elizabeth, no matter the hour. While the volunteer is not at liberty to transport the child, Elizabeth is always able to contact someone who can remove a child from an unsafe situation immediately. All area CASA volunteers have Elizabeth’s cell phone number in case of such instances, and Elizabeth never has her cell phone far from reach.

In some cases, advocates meet with the child’s family, in addition to meeting individually with the child. If it appears that the parents are making an effort to improve the situation for the child, the volunteer can offer advice or guide them to resources to improve their situation. The ultimate goal for the child is permanency, which can take years to achieve. After spending two years advocating for and getting to know a young girl, Prager is happy to see her being adopted by a loving family.

Aside from offering personal support, CASA volunteers gather information about the child’s case and ultimately make recommendations to the juvenile court judge in a written report. After an involved, 30-hour training with Elizabeth and eight to ten hours of court observance, volunteers are sworn in by the juvenile judge and given a court-appointed order signed by the judge. They then have the authority to view the child’s medical and school records as well as case history. After spending time with the child and reviewing the case, the volunteer drafts a report listing what he or she has done, who he or she has contacted, the case history and his or her personal recommendations. The recommendations could be to return the child to the biological parents, to transfer custody to another guardian, or to terminate parental rights. Elizabeth reviews the reports prior to the hearing to make sure they are succinct and objective.

Juvenile court judges are very receptive and supportive of CASA volunteers. In fact, retired Judge Terry Schell was one of the instigators in creating a CASA program for Fayette and Spalding counties. Current juvenile court judges Karen Calloway and Ben Miller Jr. are also supportive of CASA and often refer cases to Elizabeth. “They truly care about families and children,” Elizabeth says.

After the extensive training, volunteers are on their own for the most part, says Elizabeth. However, she is always available to her volunteers when they have questions, concerns or want to chat. Because of the intensity and uniqueness of their work, Elizabeth explains, CASA volunteers often like to talk together about their experiences. “This is not easy work,” she says. “It’s not a one-time volunteer opportunity, and then you go home feeling good.”

Though names and specific cases are confidential, volunteers can share their common experiences. Elizabeth says many CASA volunteers are retired or empty-nesters and enjoy the opportunity to make friends and be part of a community through CASA. While Elizabeth misses working as a volunteer and interacting with the families, she enjoys hosting training sessions and guiding volunteers as they make a difference in a child’s life.

When Elizabeth has an evening meeting or has to work from home at night, her husband, attorney Dan Hiatt, is willing to take care of their son while she works. Dan accepts that his wife’s job is not a nine-to-five job. Case in point: on their first official date in November of 1998, Elizabeth was extremely late because of her work. Elizabeth was working for DFACS (Division of Family and Children Services) at the time and was busy helping a family and unable to leave.She was so late, in fact, that the Village Café was closed by the time they arrived.  However, Dan understood the importance of her work and did not let it stand in the way of their relationship. After a year of dating, the two were married.

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“I love my job. I eat, breathe and live my job,” says Elizabeth.

Elizabeth actually met her husband for the first time in court. Dan was the prosecuting attorney in a case in which Elizabeth was also involved. After that, a friend of Dan’s set the two up on a blind, double date with himself and his wife. The four went to an oyster roast party and had a great time, says Dan. “We’ve been pretty inseparable ever since,” he says.

Like his wife, Dan is humble and unassuming, but Elizabeth is appreciative of his support in her career. “It’s just a good fit of a job for her. Helping children and families has been her focus since college,” says Dan. Elizabeth has spent her whole career in social services. Prior to spending the past one and one half years as advocacy coordinator for Advo-Kids CASA, Inc., Elizabeth worked for DFACS and state social services and was involved in various volunteer organizations.

Despite all that she accomplishes and the significant impact she makes on so many lives, Elizabeth remains humble about her role in the community. When Elizabeth started working with CASA in Fayette County, the program had eight volunteers. Today it has 46. Elizabeth self-effacingly attributes some of this growth to the fact that she simply knows a lot of people in the area because she went to school in Fayette County. “It just happened,” she says. “I don’t want to take a lot of credit for it.” However, others readily acknowledge her compassion and devotion. “I was just astounded when I met her and found out how much she was involved with in the community,” says Prager. “She is very unassuming but has a way of getting things done.”

The last class of volunteers, which was sworn in at the court house on January 13, 2009, was the largest yet with 14 members. While most of the volunteers are women, Elizabeth encourages men to volunteer as well. She feels that they can have a strong impact on the lives of young boys, especially teenagers. Currently two men are serving as CASA volunteers. In addition to serving as an advocate, individuals can donate their time by assisting with office work or grant writing. Local individuals or businesses can also provide donations like office supplies.

Elizabeth is quick to recognize all those who support CASA, including Tammi Barnett, previous director of Advo-Kids CASA, Inc., whom Elizabeth credits with getting the program up and running, and attorney Philip S. Coe in Fayetteville, who generously donated an office at his practice to Elizabeth and CASA. She also gives a lot of credit to her volunteers. “They have big hearts, and they work themselves to death,” she says. Area churches are also very open to allowing Elizabeth to host training sessions in their buildings. Peachtree City United Methodist Church not only allows Elizabeth to use their building for her training sessions but also informs its members about CASA in church bulletins. Elizabeth is also grateful to Dan, who supports her in her work and is there to help out when needed.

Outside of her work, Elizabeth leads a full life. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City where she sings in the choir and serves on the Stephen Ministry, which is a lay counseling program in which a counselor is paired with an individual going through a personal crisis. She is also the mother of an active seven-year-old boy. “In her quest to make things better for other children, she doesn’t forget her own,” says Becky Smith, director of FACTOR, Fayette Alliance Coordinating Teamwork, Outreach and Research and friend of Elizabeth’s for several years. Elizabeth picks up her son from school at 2:30 p.m. every day and takes him to soccer, karate and basketball. “She is a great mom, a great wife, and a great friend,” says Smith.

“Elizabeth Hiatt is a shining example of a Fayette woman who understands the value of ‘giving back’ to her community. Her quiet, behind-the-scenes contributions have a positive impact on the quality of life in Fayette County,” says Dianne Prager. Elizabeth has made it her life’s work to make the world a better place for others. “I do it because I know it makes a difference,” she says.

 

Krista Franks

Krista Franks is a writer and artist who grew up in Fayette County, Ga. She attended the University of Georgia where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fabric Design, a Bachelor of Arts in Journalsim and a minor in Spanish. Her hobbies include painting, drawing, sewing, knitting, reading and dreaming. An admirer of art, nature and literature, she finds beauty in every day moments and hope in the passionate spirits of those around her.

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