Ask a 4-year-old child if she wants to live with her mother, and the answer will invariably be yes, said Chris Bouchard, a volunteer with Heart of Missouri CASA. “But then you have to define what ‘mother’ is.”
Helping children find a family — no matter what that ends up meaning — is the mission of CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates and means “home” in Spanish. The organization just marked its one-year anniversary in Columbia.
“We want each child to have a safe, permanent home,” said Liz Beasley, director of Heart of Missouri CASA. “We want the child to have a family.”
The organization’s 15 volunteers serve 31 children in Boone County, and another 14 volunteers were sworn in at the Boone County Courthouse on Dec. 11. Volunteers are matched up with a child, establish a relationship with the child and advocate for the child’s best interest in court.
CASA’s main goal is finding a permanent home for children who have been abused or neglected and who are in the legal custody of the juvenile court.
According to the National CASA Web site, CASA began in 1977 when a Seattle judge thought of the idea of using trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court. Today, a network of 50,000 volunteers serves 225,000 abused and neglected children in more than 900 programs in all 50 states and the Virgin Islands. There are 21 programs in Missouri.
Mona Wall-Smith has been volunteering for Heart of Missouri CASA since its establishment in July 2005 and understands the impact a CASA volunteer can have on a child. In early December, Wall-Smith’s case was wrapping up, and she was happy because the court had decided to make permanent the home she’d advocated for the child to be placed in.
“Knowing that my child has a secure family is really heartfelt and empowering,” Wall-Smith said.
But the organization has been unable to serve all the children it would like to help. After a year, there are still more than 200 children in foster care in Boone County without a CASA volunteer to represent them.
The problem is not a lack of volunteers but getting the funding to pay staff, said Beth Dessem, the executive director of the Missouri CASA Association.
In 2005, the Heart of Missouri CASA board got its start with a new program grant from the national organization of $40,000 for two years. The grant term ends on June 30, so the local organization is applying for state grants and seeking funding through foundations, clubs and charitable donations.
The money provided to each chapter by the state has gone down each year because of the new programs opening in Missouri, Dessem said. The state’s contribution is now just $4,000 per program. That means additional money has to come from other sources, Dessem said.
One source of funding has been Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority at MU, which holds a basketball tournament in November called Main Event and donates all proceeds to CASA, said Liz Henderlong, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta.
The sorority also holds a pancake breakfast in November and an interhouse book drive in which sorority sisters are encouraged to donate books for children across Missouri. Henderlong said the sorority has raised $10,000 to $20,000 for CASA, distributing that among three Missouri CASA chapters in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.
“It provides a really good support system for kids in bad families,” Henderlong said. “It’s a way to legally find a better situation.”
Locating money is only part of the process of efficiently running a CASA.
“The CASA volunteers are the ones who work hard and make a lifelong difference for a child,” Beasley said.
As gratifying as being a CASA volunteer can be, there are also challenges along the way.
“Being a volunteer does take time, but the time is totally worth it,” Wall-Smith said. “We’re dedicated to the child. You cannot put a time limit on that.”
In every case, “there’s a lot of emotion,” Bouchard said. “In an abuse situation, the parents still have an attachment to the kids. It’s hard to understand, and terminating parental rights is a tough thing to do.”