Child advocate program seeks aid

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

With the state’s Court Appointed Special Advocates programs having to split a tiny funding pie 20 ways, Boone County’s growing CASA program is hoping a new “sponsor a volunteer” initiative will help offset a funding shortfall.

On June 27, Gov. Matt Blunt signed a bill allocating $300,000 to Missouri CASA. A total of $200,000 was earmarked for new CASA programs; the remaining $100,000 will be split among the state’s 20 programs, meaning each existing program will receive only $5,000.

That won’t do much to help fund Boone County’s Heart of Missouri program, which is no longer eligible to receive start-up program funding from the national organization. That funding provided $40,000 a year for the first two years of the program’s existence.

“We weren’t in dire need of donations when we had the grant, but we are now,” said Liz Beasley, program director for Heart of Missouri, which has its headquarters in Columbia.

And the program is growing. Last year, Heart of Missouri, which trains volunteers to represent the interests of children who have been taken into foster care as a result of abuse or neglect, served 32 children. So far this year, the number has risen to 61. The program has 23 volunteers.

“That number does include some of the children from last year,” Beasley said. “But we’re clearly expanding. Case managers from social services are assigned so many children that it’s hard for them to give kids the individual attention they need, which is what we do.”

Beasley worked from January to May to get the funding bill passed for Missouri CASA. She is now focusing her efforts on initiatives like the Sponsor a Volunteer program, through which local citizens and companies can sponsor Heart of Missouri volunteers.

She’s also publicizing the state’s Children in Crisis Tax Credit program, which allows individuals to receive up to 50 percent tax credit if they donate to CASA.

Birgit Kinney, a Columbia resident who has donated money to Heart of Missouri for the past two years, likes the idea of the Sponsor a Volunteer program.

“Some people can donate time while others can donate money; the same person won’t necessarily be able to do both,” Kinney said. “But if those two people can partner up, if someone can sponsor a volunteer, a lot of good can get done.”

Jennifer Bukowsky, a CASA volunteer since 2005 who worked with Beasley to pass the funding bill, said talking to legislators about her experiences with children had an impact. Now she’d like the local community to understand that CASA’s work is more important than they may realize.

“We’re serving the interests of local children, and that’s in everyone’s interest,” she said.

CASA volunteers research children’s cases extensively, attend their court hearings, meet with them at least twice a month to ensure that their foster situations are suitable, meet with their teachers at school, and more.

“Case workers don’t have the time to go into that level of detail for each case they have,” Bukowsky said. “But we’re making huge decisions in these children’s lives, so we need to be going into that level of detail.”

Sponsorship of a volunteer will cost $2,400 per year, with each sponsor eligible to receive the 50 percent tax credit through Children in Crisis. Beasley said she hoped companies in particular who have employees who are CASA volunteers would decide to provide financial sponsorship. She cited Shelter Insurance as an example, which has three employees who are volunteers and has donated in the past.

On average, children in Boone County are in foster care for 35 months, five months more than the national average.

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