Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.
COLUMBIA — Bev Fries began as a total stranger to four children, but she ended up being one of the most important individuals in their lives.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates organization began in 1977 in Spokane, Wash., as a volunteer program to provide children with a consistent advocate throughout a custody case.
It had grown to 88 offices nationwide by 1982, and in the same year the National CASA was founded.
By 1987 there were 271 offices throughout the country, with more than 12 thousand volunteers.
Currently it is an international organization, with over 1,000 programs.
She's a source of consistency for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect and acts as a child's voice in court.
As a volunteer for a national organization, Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, which advocates for children in custody cases, Fries takes into account the wants and needs of children to make sure they have a safe and comfortable home.
Fries and more than 30 other volunteers work with Heart of Missouri CASA, Columbia's branch of the national organization, which has represented almost 400 children since 2005.
A volunteer's involvement significantly increases court-ordered aid to the children and their parents, and lowers their chances of spending more time in foster care, according to a 2006 Justice Department audit of the organization.
Before she became a court advocate, Fries taught Sunday school, volunteered at her church nursery and was active in her own children’s activities.
When her son and daughter went to college, she learned about the special advocates program and decided to volunteer, hoping to help abused or neglected children find stable homes.
In 2010, after 30 hours of training, she was sworn in by a family court judge, and was given her first case — to determine whether a single mother who had recently been released from prison could care for her four children.
Why she does it
The four children were shy during their first meeting, Fries said, but warmed as she got to know them.
Twice a month she visited the children, who lived at a relative's house more than 60 miles from Columbia, and twice she drove through last winter's snow storms.
Fries also got to visit the children at their school.
"They were showing me around the lunchroom, telling me the rules," she said. "It was so fun."
Part of her job during this time, she said, was to make sure the mother was "creating an atmosphere where the kids are safe and comfortable."
She reported the mother's positive steps toward a family support team, a group including the mother, her legal adviser and relatives serving as guardians, as well as a guardian ad litem for the children, the case manager and the Juvenile Office. The group met throughout the case to determine whether the mother was capable of being a parent.
Fries smiled as she remembered a special moment toward the end of the case. She was leaving the children's home, when one of the little girls ran up with her arms open wide.
She wanted a hug.
"She was saying, 'bye-bye, CASA," Fries said. "That's when I knew they were comfortable."
After about a year on the case, the mother received full custody and the children moved back in. "I was very happy," Fries said.
Volunteers typically work on one case during their minimum two-year commitment to the organization. Fries, who's on her third case, doesn't have any plans to quit.
“CASA is an extremely effective advocacy group for youth in foster care, but unfortunately, the organization is virtually unknown to the general public,” said Steve Skolnick, executive director of the Columbia branch.
Skolnick himself was an "at-risk youth" and high school dropout, but credits mentors and key adults in his life with helping him get to college.
He has since worked with many youth organizations, including Front Door Youth Services in his 20s, and later spent 12 years as a civil rights attorney after graduating from the MU School of Law.
He came out of retirement in 2009 to volunteer as a special advocate. Skolnick became director of the Columbia branch while working on his first case.
He has always had a passion for helping children, he said, and recalled a powerful moment that occurred in law school. He was leaving Hulston Hall when an old friend recognized him and ran up.
It was one of the children Skolnick had helped in the past, who, after spending six months in Boonville Correctional Center, had decided to turn his life around.
"He said he wanted to thank me for teaching him that he didn't have to have that kind of life," Skolnick said.
"That's the feeling," he said, "that you have a chance to make that kind of difference in a life."
Terrie Foltz, volunteer coordinator for the local special advocates branch, said that volunteers don't join for personal gain, but to give back to the community.
"The bottom line is that if there is one adult that cares about a child, that really makes a difference," she said.
Foltz makes sure the children in each case are taken care of and that volunteers are trained through 30 hours of coursework and interviews.
Foltz began volunteering in 2006 after reading about the program in her church bulletin. A lifelong educator, she feels that as a special advocate she has "found her niche."
"I'm passionate about helping vulnerable children," she said, "because every child deserves to be cherished."