Hope needs a helping hand

By Christy Porter, Managing Editor

CASA of South Central Missouri needs volunteers to help change a child’s story; become a CASA volunteer. CASA is a child advocacy group that believes in and supports every child in foster care. South Central CASA of the 25th Judicial District had its start in Phelps County in 2004 and has since expanded to include Texas, Pulaski and Maries counties, with offices at the courthouse in Texas and Pulaski counties and a stand-alone office in Phelps County.

The CASA program began in 1977 in Seattle, Wash., as a volunteer based organization “to be the eyes and ears of the kids within the court system.” It has expanded to become nationwide, separated into circuits. The CASA program is funded by grants and donations and is not a government entity.

Unfortunately there was an increase in 2020 up from 2019 in the South Central Missouri circuit. Through no fault of their own, 729 kids were in foster care and every child was a victim of abuse and/or neglect. Of those children, 85 percent had been exposed to drug and opioid drug use and/or abuse. The CASA 25th Judicial District served 352 of these children with a caring volunteer group of 126 persons.

In Texas County one out of every 205 people is a child in foster care; currently that means there are 117 kids in foster care, the highest percentage of children served in the four counties that comprise the 25th Judicial District. These children are picked up and placed in foster care within 24-hours of awareness because it is believed that the child is in imminent danger for their life.

Each child placed in foster care is paired with a CASA volunteer who will monitor all aspects of that child’s life while in the judicial system; this is in addition to the resources provided by local, state and federal government entities. CASA of South Central Missouri is in need of six or seven additional volunteers to serve in Texas County, bringing the volunteer staff to 100 percent. “We would love the optimum situation for CASA, which would be fully staffed with a waiting list of volunteers, so that we would never be understaffed,” says Matthew Evans, CASA of South Central Missouri Executive Director.

All volunteers are provided 30-hours of free in-service training that is done both in-person and on-line via Zoom. This includes familiarization with the judicial system, how it works and acronyms frequently used in child advocacy cases. There is exposure to case studies, playacting for possible situations that may occur, identifying available resources, how to complete necessary reports, and the best utilization of time and financial resources. Volunteers are truly trained to be the eyes and ears for the court.

The program itself and a volunteer supervisor ensure that “no man is left behind” in regards to a volunteer. They have support at the local level and on a national level. Advocacy and recruitment resources are statewide to provide the best quality of service that can be provided. The 25th Judicial District judges respect CASA and CASA volunteers, they value their opinions whether they stand up in court or not. They are current with the laws and process in regard to child advocacy. Evans shares that locally all government entities work very well together and have great relationships. If at any time there is a breakdown in communication for any participants in the Family Support Team of a child’s case, CASA supports the volunteer with conflict resolution, again “no man left behind.” CASA takes the role of protecting the children and protecting the volunteers very seriously.

What is required for a person to be a CASA volunteer? The process begins with filling out an application, participating in an interview and submitting to a background check and drug test. They then attend training, and when complete, there is a graduation and the volunteer is sworn in. A volunteer supervisor is then assigned to the volunteer before the volunteer is assigned to a case.

After receiving the case the volunteer will visit the child at least once a month (an average of four to six hours per month on the case, overall) to ensure their placement is safe and stable. Consistency for the child is important and if they and the volunteer are bonding, there is no limit on the amount of time spent with the child. Interaction with the child is playing or visiting with them. The volunteer will gather and receive educational, health and family information, which is given to the presiding judge in court. As an advocate, one will interact with the whole Family Support Team, consisting of all interested parties in the case, including the foster family, the Division of Children’s Services, the juvenile office, biological parents and all legal parties involved. The goal is for placement of the child to be with kinship whenever possible. Most recently it is 30 percent placement in group care and 70 percent in foster care; it does sometimes extend to adoption or guardianship.

Optimally volunteer support begins when the child is assigned and continues until the child leaves the foster care program or ages out at 18-years or 21-years when necessary. At that time the child will hopefully continue on to productive employment, vocational instruction or a college education. As a rule the volunteer will average 18-months on a case, sometimes less, sometimes more, but a child may remain in foster care significantly longer. For larger family units in care, volunteers will be part of a volunteer team to ensure all of the children and the judicial system needs are being met.

Says Evans, “There are times when the bond between a child and the volunteer continues past leaving foster care or aging out. It is heartwarming to know that a volunteer has made such a difference in the life of a person that they continue to share life experiences into the future.”

CASA follows the child regardless of their placement or changes that may occur in their placement. The child remains in the jurisdiction of the CASA judicial district where the case is initiated. Some children are placed outside the divisional area for needed resources and again, CASA and the volunteer follow the child into the new circumstances. The pandemic prompted innovative ways of maintaining normal contact and communication using telecommunication, which is also beneficial if the child is placed outside the divisional area.

A new program within CASA is the Wish Program that provides a “Birthday in a Bag” for every child aged one to 18-years in CASA care. The bag is filled with anything “birthday,” cakes, icings, toys, school supplies, pillows, quilts, blankets and special mementos. The “Birthday in a Bag” is given from the caregiver to the child, providing additional help to the immediate caregiver caring for the child.

The volunteers are compensated by the relationship they develop and the positive benefits for the children they serve. The supervisors, however, are paid employees of CASA. Financial assistance is necessary to provide qualified supervisors to support the volunteers. It requires $108 per month to support one child and volunteer with the resources needed for this beneficial program to function as intended. While grants and other financial donations fill a part of that need, any donation is appreciated and utilized to the fullest.

How can you help the CASA program?

  • Volunteer
  • Donate items that recognize a child’s special day
  • Financial assistance

It only takes little effort to make a big impact in the life of a child. If interested in the CASA program and the support of compromised children in our communities, call 573-426-5437, email info@casascmo.org, or visit www.casascmo.org.

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