Capital City CASA steps in to help kids navigate the court systems for a brighter future.
The world can often be tough. Although it would be nice to live in a place where the sun is always shining, reality is often less colorful and a lot less warm, especially when it comes to kids who are hurting right here in our community. These are lost kids who are neglected, abused and forgotten by most everyone except for one group.
Capital City CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, has a crucial mission in Jefferson City and that is to be a voice for kids in the court system. Started in 2010, CASA began in Cole County after passionate community members saw a need and established a local organization from the national CASA group. Dr. Jim Kellerman signed on to be executive director with his wife, Tricia, as executive assistant, and the two began to recruit and train local CASA volunteers.
“When someone asks me what I am looking for in a CASA volunteer, I always say someone who cares about kids,” Kellerman says.
CASA volunteers go through 30-40 hours of training, which includes learning about the court system and how to make sure children’s basic rights and essential needs don’t get overlooked or ignored. The advocates are sworn in as officers of the court. When a case comes to court, kids who have been taken away from their parents because of abuse or neglect and are waiting for the next steps to determine their future, they are assigned a CASA volunteer. A CASA volunteer is with them every step of the way.
“We emphasize to our volunteers that they are there for the child. Even though they [the kids] may work with Mom and Dad, foster parents and others in the welfare system, we are looking out for these children all the time,” Kellerman says. “More often than not, our volunteers are the only ones these kids can talk to.”
Volunteers are critical to the success of CASA. There are currently more than 50 active CASA volunteers with 20 more being trained this spring, and they generously give their time to these kids. An average case for a CASA volunteer is one year to a year and a half with some complicated cases going as long as two or three years.
Norma Rose, who has been a CASA volunteer since 2014, is currently on her third case as a volunteer. It was rewarding to see the first two cases close with the child getting out of the system and into a safe home, she says. Although there is a lot of time spent as an advocate for these kids, she sees it as an ongoing investment.
“It’s another way of contributing to the community where we live,” Rose says. “Children are our future. I don’t think we can ever give too much time to them.”
In 2015, CASA volunteers invested in 108 children going through the court system in Cole County. The hours are countless. But the time spent by CASA volunteers, or the valuable service they provide, is not lost, says Kathy Farmer, current president of the CASA board of directors.
“It’s amazing how diverse our CASA volunteers are,” Farmer says. “They give their heart and time to kids they don’t know. It makes you very proud of our community.”
Making the community more aware of CASA, including the much-needed help for these kids, is part of Farmer’s personal mission on the board.
“CASA is an organization that runs under the radar because these are children you don’t see going to activities or playing outside. They are often ghosts in our community.”
As scary as home life might be, navigating the court system with no parents and complete strangers can be even more frightening. It is life changing for these children to have someone working on a one-to-one basis with them in hopes of improving their chances for a brighter future.
“The court system can be very impersonal even for adults, but when you have a child in a judicial environment, they are wards of the court and the experience can be especially frightening,” says John Landwehr, CASA board member and immediate past president. “CASA injects a sensitive, individualized experience, which is why it is so needed and also why it
is so effective.”
It is those success stories that keep CASA volunteers, board members and staff working tirelessly for this cause. Kellerman shares countless stories of kids being reunited with their parents or finding a new home full of love in our community.
“Of all the things I’ve ever done in my life, this is the most rewarding,” he says. “It is the satisfaction of helping kids. Those are the happy endings you want to see.”
Capital City CASA is a partner agency with the United Way of Central Missouri.