Kip Atkinson went from “bad guy” to good guy in just a few months.
The Billings man has now spent a year volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, with abused and neglected kids. Before that, he spent five years shutting off power at homes where bills weren’t paid.
“Nobody likes doing it,” Atkinson said. “It is absolutely the worst.”
The work was part of Atkinson’s career as a lineman with NorthWestern Energy. It was a small, but eye-opening, part of the job that fell to him during the final years of his career.
Atkinson said the company gives employees a lot of leeway in determining when to shut off power, and he always erred toward keeping it on. But if he’d made several visits and the homeowners or renters weren’t making good faith efforts to work on payment, he was the one to cut them off.
Atkinson said he ran into a lot of people who believed it was illegal to shut off power during winter months. It’s not, but the company needs approval from the Public Service Commission to do so.
In explaining that to residents, Atkinson would be yelled at and called names, he said. During one such incident, a toddler came to the front door to see what was going on.
“Just sweet, adorable little thing,” he said. “Pretty disheveled, but just the sweetest little thing.”
And the parents yelled at the kid, swearing, and told the child to leave.
It was experiences like that that spurred Atkinson to volunteer with CASA.
He’s worked with one boy for a year now, following and assisting in his case. Atkinson meets regularly with social workers and court officials, and visits the boy at least once a month to hear updates on his life. Atkinson recently got a “one-hour tutorial on Pokémon,” he said. “More than I ever dreamed of knowing.”
By getting to know the children, CASA volunteers learn about their educational and emotional needs, as well as their desires for placement, and can make recommendations to the court handling their case.
While CASA of Yellowstone County is always looking to recruit more volunteers, men are in especially short supply. Of the 141 current CASA volunteers, 17 are men.
And the need for volunteers is greater than ever. Child abuse and neglect cases have skyrocketed in recent years, from 124 in 2010 to 531 in 2016. Meth is a major driver, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said.
Yellowstone County has more than 900 children in foster care placements, said Sophia Jackson, Indian Child Welfare Coordinator for CASA of Yellowstone County.
“And the need for advocates is so great because no one visits the child like an advocate does and spends the time to get to know the child like an advocate does,” Jackson said.