Legal aid is on way for abused kids

A local program that seeks volunteer lawyers for juveniles is being established.
Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:45 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neglected and abused children who are in Boone County’s court system will have more advocates soon.

Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national, nonprofit program that recruits volunteers to represent the child’s best interest in abuse and neglect cases, is starting a local program this fall.

“I came here two years ago and this has been one of my goals,” said Beth Dessem, the state director for CASA.

The Missouri CASA Association board of directors has made funding for a local program available. Dessem hopes to form a local board that will start recruiting volunteers to be assigned to court cases that involve juveniles.

Volunteers spend time with the children, observing their behavior as well as the family’s situation. They may even visit children and their teachers in schools. Volunteers would then make a recommendation to the judge in the case about what would best serve the child’s best interests.

Family Court Division Judge Cary Augustine will assist Dessem in getting the program started and oversee it once it is running. Volunteers would work in conjunction with a Guardian Ad Litem certified attorney, said Lynn Cole, Department of Social Services circuit manager.

“The CASA volunteer would have more time to spend with the child,” she said. “The Guardian Ad Litem attorneys that we have are contracted out to other counties, and they may not have enough time.”

CASA volunteers must be at least 21 years old and pass a criminal-background check. They must also complete at least 30 hours of training on legal and social issues and family dynamics before they are assigned cases.

According to the children’s division of the Department of Social Services, there were 1,097 reported incidents of child abuse and neglect for Boone County in 2003.

“It’s about time that we had a program,” Cole said.

Dessem is waiting until Jan.1, 2005, to start assigning volunteers to cases so that the local board can apply for funding from the national CASA program. Dessem hopes the Columbia chapter will grow to at least 30 volunteers.

“There are never enough volunteers for cases,” she said.

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