Helping Those Without a Voice

A CASA volunteer makes sure a child who has been removed from their home doesn't face a
frightening and unkonwn future alone.

Helping Those Without a Voice
Article by Gina Clement,
Capital City CASA Executive Director

Through no fault of their own a child removed from a home due to abuse or neglect faces a frightening and profound future. Volunteers of Capital City CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) make sure these children do not face it alone. Capital City CASA is a non-profit, volunteer based, child victim advocacy organization that provides screened, trained and supervised volunteer advocates to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children in juvenile court proceedings in Cole County.

Capital City CASA was incorporated and established under the umbrella of the Kiwanis Club of Jefferson City in February 2009. The Kiwanis Club recognized a need for children in the juvenile court system to have a voice. In March of 2011 the first group of CASA volunteers was sworn in and began providing children victimized by abuse and neglect an opportunity to have their wishes made known in juvenile court.

Potential volunteers go through a background screening, an interview and forty hours of training before being sworn in as an officer of the court as a court appointed special advocate. Volunteers come from our community and do not need to have experience in social work or the legal field to become an advocate. Once a volunteer has been sworn in by Judge Jon Beetem, they can be assigned a case and begin to advocate for a child or sibling group. They do not handle any legal representation of the child(ren). They build a relationship with the child, collect information about the child from doctors, teachers, daycares, therapists, foster parents, natural parents and extended family and the advocate reports the information to the judge. They are the eyes and ears of the court in the community for that child, and the voice of that child in court.

The age range of children currently served by Capital City CASA is newborn to eighteen years old, though we can serve a child until they turn 21. Volunteers work with a team consisting of a Juvenile Officer, caseworker and Guardian ad Litem to address the needs of the child. A child in the court’s care should not miss out on childhood experiences because they have been removed from their home. Capital City CASA works with other United Way agencies to ensure that a child has access to summer camps, tutoring, mentoring and other opportunities. For many children, their CASA becomes the one consistent person in their life when so much else changes. One older youth wished his CASA a Happy Father’s Day. At fifteen, his CASA was the only father figure he had known.

Often when children are removed from their home, they are able to bring very little with them--at most, what will fit in a school backpack. For a teenager that isn’t much. A child will move five to seven times during the entirety of their case, and too many times each move is made in a large, black trash bag. We dispose of these bags. The message sent to the children is they are being disposed of as well. Their shoes, clothes and personal items are “packed” in trash bags and moved to another unfamiliar house to live with strangers. Capital City CASA is working to end this problem, which has persisted in the child welfare system for decades.

Annually, there are over 200 children removed from their homes in Cole County. We are currently serving 60% of those children. Too many are still without a voice and a constant, caring adult. Through CASA’s partnership with the United Way of Central Missouri, a full-time Advocate Coordinator is making it possible to add and supervise additional volunteers so CASA can continue to provide advocacy for more children in Cole County. Additionally, CASA has staff dedicated to the educational advocacy for the children they serve. When a school-aged child has been removed from their home, we want the volunteers to be focused on how a child is performing in school, such as if they are receiving the services they need at school as well as receiving other services they might need. This Volunteer Coordinator supports and guides all volunteers who have cases with children in school so they are more informed about what services a child is entitled to receive, which educational plan the child might need, and what questions to ask school personnel and what information to request for court reports. A child who has been removed from their home and who has a CASA is more likely to graduate from high school, to have a plan for permanency, to pass all courses and will spend significantly less time in foster care. They are less likely to have poor conduct in school and to be expelled.

The importance of a CASA in a child’s life is critical. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a voice for a child who has suffered from abuse and neglect contact Capital City CASA at 573-893-2272 or www.capitalcitycasa.org. Capital City CASA is a proud partner agency of the United Way of Central Missouri.