CASA Helps Abused Children
In Spanish, the word “casa” means home. It’s a fitting analogy for a program that provides Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. To learn more, we talked with Robin McGinnity Connelly, executive director for the 15th Judicial Circuit CASA, which includes Lafayette and Saline counties.
CASA’s mission is to recruit and train citizenvolunteers to speak in court on behalf of kids who have been abused or neglected. “A judge appoints all of our cases,” McGinnity said. “CASA works within the legal system to establish a safe, permanent home for children, either through adoption or by being reunited with their birth families. We serve about 80 to 90 children annually in Lafayette and Saline counties, and the need is growing.”
When asked how McGinnity got involved in the organization, she said her work in a prior position led her to CASA. “Early in my career, I worked as an Attorney, Guardian Ad Litem for abused children in Washington, D.C. At the time, no one in the courtroom was directly involved with the child. In 1977, a brilliant judge in Seattle conceived of the idea of community volunteers who could speak up for the interests of abused and neglected children. It gives children a seat at the table, so to speak, so judges can make more informed decisions about their welfare. That was the foundation of CASA, and today it’s a nationally accredited program that operates in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
“I was recruited to step into the executive director role for the 15th Judicial Circuit because of my professional background. I relocated to Missouri 10 years ago and I’m still here! We have CASA offices in Lexington and Marshall,” she said.
It’s safe to say that after 10 years, McGinnity has seena few things, and yes, has a few stories to tell. “Paul is a 16-year-old boy who came into care four years ago with mental health issues. Paul’s CASA volunteer stood by him through 10 different placements and made sure he received the treatment he needed. She was still with Paul, encouraging him, when it came time for a trial reunion with his biological mother. When that failed, Paul’s CASA remained a constant in is life. At a crossroads in his life, Paul decided he no longer wanted contact with his biological mother. His tenacious CASA volunteer listened, researched and spoke on his behalf in court. An unusual court order was granted ceasing all visitations with his mother. Paul’s behaviors improved almost overnight. He was able to leave institutional care and be placed in a foster home … a dream come true for Paul.
“During one of Paul’s regularly scheduled hearings, his foster mother accompanied him to court, along with his CASA volunteer. His foster mother said she wanted to adopt Paul—a rare occurrence for foster children this age. I wish you could have seen this moment. Quiet, shy Paul turned to his CASA volunteer, gave her an unsolicited hug in open court and said, ‘I love you!’ It’s etched in our memories forever.”
McGinnity agrees that stories like these are often the result of an invaluable resource – volunteers. CASA currently has 22 volunteers who are typically assigned to one or two cases a year. A case may involve one child or more, depending on the family. Volunteers remain on a case until it is resolved, which can take anywhere from 12 months to three years. “Our motto at CASA is to ‘lift up a child’s voice, a child’s life.’ And that is what we do,” she said. “We’d like to be able to help every child who is in the court system due to circumstances beyond their control. Right now, there are at least 30 children in Lafayette and Saline counties who are not being served by CASA due to a shortage of volunteers.”
But that’s not all, there is a shortage of foster homes, too. “Because we also have a shortage of foster homes in our community, some children are placed in foster care in another county. In those cases, we travel to where the child is located for home visits,” McGinnity said. “Ninety percent of the kids CASA works with don’t come back into the system. That’s a good feeling.”
One of the key reasons CASA is so effective is because it maintains regular contact with kids through in-home visits – at least once a month if not more frequently. CASA volunteers work very closely with lawyers, social workers and other professionals.
The organization’s role is to investigate and advocate for the long-term best interests of each child. McGinnity adds that an advocate may be the only consistent adult in a child’s life over the period of time it takes to resolve a case, as illustrated in the story she shared.
“We are in court every Tuesday and I take my volunteers to lunch on those days. Court lunch Tuesdays! It’s a way to thank them for donating their time and talent to CASA, and we’ve gotten to know each other very well. It’s a close-knit family,” she said. Nationwide, there are about 950 CASA programs and 77,000 advocates who have helped more than two million children since the organization was founded in 1977.
For anyone interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, call 660.259.2590 (Lafayette County), 660.886.5779 (Saline County), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page to learn more. Volunteers are asked to complete an application, pass a background check and complete 32 hours of training. CASA also accepts donations, which are eligible for Missouri’s Champion for Children Tax Credit. The website is MOCASA.org/donate.