Court Appointed Special Advocate

By Laura Ginsberg-

Dedicated local volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of South Central Missouri are working every day to give a voice to children throughout Phelps County who have been victims of abuse and neglect.

CASA has been serving children in Phelps County since July 2005 and now works alongside other agencies and programs as part the 25th Judicial Circuit's unified family court program. CASA's community volunteers advocate for children in Phelps County where on any given day an average of more than 100 children have been removed from their homes and are in the custody of the state.

"The concept of CASA is that every child deserves a safe and permanent home," said Judy Waters, executive director of CASA of South Central Missouri. "This is a program where one person can truly make a difference, and CASA volunteers come from all walks of life."

CASA volunteers donate hundreds of hours of their time each year to children in the foster care system who have been abused or neglected, or who are in danger of being abused or neglected. Their job is to be an advocate for the children they serve and to ensure all decisions in the case are being made in the best interests of the child.

A court order is issued to CASA volunteers allowing them to obtain records relating to the child's case, such as police reports, hospital records and reports from the Children's Division. Volunteers also meet with the child's teachers, family members and other individuals who can provide information about the child's current situation.

Perhaps most importantly, CASA volunteers meet at least once a month with the child to determine how they feel about what is going on in the case.

The children can become overwhelmed with everything that is going and all of the people involved in the case," Waters said. "But the volunteer can tell them what to expect. CASA volunteers identify what needs to happen so the child will be safe and happy and out of the system."

CASA volunteers are just part of a team of individuals who work with children in state care to ensure that their needs are being met. Waters said the 25th Circuit's creation of a unified family court has helped all agencies and individuals involved in child abuse and neglect cases stay in better contact and share information more easily.

"The unified family court program offers us opportunities to attend additional training, improve our skills and talk together about different legislative issues," she said. "It gets us together and helps us work more efficiently; our goals are the same."

Each CASA volunteer works with only one to two cases per year, while each Children's Division social worker may handle up to 20 cases at a time, and only one paid guardian ad litem handles cases in Phelps County. This individualized attention allows volunteers to act as an additional safety net to ensure children's needs are being met and they have access to all the programs and services that could benefit them.

CASA's services are especially valuable in Phelps County, which is ranked 12th among 114 counties plus St. Louis City in the number of children in state custody in 2009. According to the 2009 Missouri Kids County report, Phelps County had an average of 7.6 children per 1,000 in out-of-home placement compared to 3.8 children per 1,000 statewide. Additionally, substantiated child abuse and neglect cases for Phelps County were 40.5 per 1,000 children while the statewide the average was 32.1 per 1,000.

The ultimate goal for CASA is to help shorten the amount of time children spend in the foster care system and limit the number of placements until children can return home or find another safe, permanent guardian. Statistics show the program is succeeding, with only 5.5 percent of children served by CASA spending more than three years in foster care compared to 13.3 percent of all children in foster care. Children who are served by CASA also are less likely to end up back in the foster care system.

"A safe, permanent home – quickly – that is our motto," Waters said.

As funding become available, CASA of South Central Missouri hopes to expand its services to other counties in the 25th Judicial Circuit.

Those interested in becoming a CASA volunteer must be 21 years or older, successfully complete the program's screening requirements, complete all training and undergo at least 12 hours of continued training yearly. For more information about CASA, contact Waters at 573-458-6240 or casaphel@fidnet.com. More information also can be found at www.casascmo.org.
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