Imagine you’re a little kid, removed from your home because of neglect or abuse. There are lots of voices talking over your head, some you recognize and many you do not. Suddenly, you’re in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. They’re nice, but what’s going on?
No one likes to be in the dark about what’s happening to them, and that includes children. CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates – give kids a voice in the judicial system that is determining their present and future care.
Allowing Children to Speak Up
Robin McGinnity Connelly is executive director for the 15th Judicial Circuit CASA, which serves children in Lafayette and Saline Counties. In 2018, 1,568 CASA volunteers assisted 4,834 children in foster care throughout Missouri. About 100 of those children were served by 20 CASA volunteers working in the 15th Judicial Circuit.
Priority One is keeping kids from falling through cracks in the foster care system. “The whole point of CASA is to make sure the child – who doesn’t attend hearings affecting their welfare – “has a voice and presence in court,” Connelly said. “Social workers and case workers change all the time. Sadly, often their foster homes change. It breaks my heart because I can see no one is consistently in the child’s corner.”
But the CASA volunteer stays with the child as they go through the system, making a home visit at least once a month. They explain what’s happening and report back to the judge, who has signed a court order allowing that CASA full access to files concerning the child.
How are you? What can I tell the judge? “The CASA identifies that services are being given and whether they are working,” Connelly said. “If they’re not working, the CASA advocates for better services.” In Missouri, 90 percent of children represented by a CASA volunteer don’t return to the foster care system after being reunited with their families or placed through adoption.
Addressing the Need
There’s always a demand for more CASA volunteers. In Lafayette and Saline Counties, there are presently about 20. “Our mission is to serve children, but we also serve volunteers. We believe in treating them very well, providing plenty of support.”
Volunteers remain on a case until it is resolved, usually 12 to 36 months. The number of children needing CASAs is increasing, as kids are removed from damaging situations quicker than they were when Connelly first started this CASA program in August 2006. “They’d open a case and provide services but leave the child in the home,” she said. “We all understand children love their parents and don’t want to be plucked away from them. But the sad fact was, it wasn’t working. Children would linger in chaos for years, neglected and abused. Their needs would be higher when they did come into the system, and by then it was harder to remedy the situation. It has been my experience that the sooner the parents receive services to remedy their problems, the better the outcome.”
Becoming a CASA Volunteer
CASA volunteers become the eyes and ears of the judge. Since most only take on one or two cases at a time, they truly get to know the child and everything about their case. In the courtroom, the CASA becomes the go-to person for info on how the child is doing.
Potential volunteers are asked to complete an application, pass a background check, and complete 32 hours of training. This training helps volunteers decide where they can best help. Connelly remembers one woman who trained to be a CASA but regretfully decided it would be too hard on her emotionally. “So, she became a volunteer in our offices. We always find a spot for a good heart.” You may be a CASA, help around the office, collect toys, assist with events – there are plenty of places to plug in.
Other Ways to Help
“We are a nonprofit, and welcome donations,” Connelly said. “One of the nice things about donations is we qualify for what’s called the Champion of Children Tax Credit. For every $100 donated to CASA, if you’re a Missouri resident, you can get a 50 percent tax credit.” (See https://www.mocasa.org/get-involved/champion-for-children-tax-credit.html.)
They also collect new infant or soft toys, plus $15 gift cards for teens. “When a CASA visits a child for the first time, they bring a ‘backpack of care,’” she said. “They’ll usually put a couple of toys or a blanket in there for the child as an introduction gift.” The CASA also brings birthday and Christmas gifts.
“I don’t want CASA volunteers who are already giving time and talent to have to go buy stuff for the kids. We collect donations, then have them all organized on shelves in our offices. One fun tradition is to have a CASA volunteer appreciation dinner every December.” The board thanks them for what they do, then the CASAs get to choose Christmas gifts to give to the children they’re serving.
Another way to help is through a legacy gift. “We just lost one of our dear longtime CASA volunteers, Marilyn Boeschen,” Connelly said. “We all adored her; she was the delight of our program, quite frankly. She did so much for her children; the foster parents always commented to us how much they loved her. When she died, instead of flowers, a collection was taken up for CASA. She was a gentle soul who loved being a CASA. Even in death, she was supporting us.”
April is National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month. “We’re looking for underwriters for CASA’s annual Blue Jean Bash,” Connelly said. The 2020 event will be at Jackson’s Event & Catering Center in Marshall on April 30, featuring delicious BBQ and a live auction. Tickets are $25. “It’s wonderful, getting people together in a community effort celebrating the work of CASA.”
To learn more about CASA, visit www.mocasa.org. Want to volunteer, donate, or sponsor an event? Contact Robin McGinnity Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 660.259.2590. Visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/15CASA.