20 March 2015
Justice Matters: CASA volunteers bring stability to lives of abused, neglected children
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.
The myriad of cases in our state court system touch many lives, but perhaps the saddest instances involve children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves alone and lost in a courtroom full of adult strangers.
Currently in Missouri, about 14,000 children – whose families have abandoned, neglected or abused them – are in the custody of the state children’s division as wards of our courts. This statistic alone is disturbing, but the children’s circumstances can be even more troubling. Most of these children are living in foster care and face an uncertain future of being moved from foster home to foster home, often carrying everything they own in just a black trash bag.
While our courts have made strides in the past decade to ensure that these children are placed into a stable, permanent environment as soon as is practical, the journey nonetheless often feels long and frightening to the child involved. And so judges rely on the help of a special group of volunteers to help make the court process a little less scary for these abused and neglected children.
These volunteers – specially selected and trained by an advocacy organization called Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) – provide stability for the child as they get to know the children and the families well. The volunteer, who is appointed by the judge in a child abuse or neglect case, speaks with parents, foster parents, children’s division workers, teachers and others to help provide valuable information to the judge about what is in the child’s best interest. In this way, the CASA volunteers become the “eyes and ears” of the court.
National research shows that children with CASA volunteers are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care and are more likely to be adopted. They also do better in school. The work that CASA volunteers provide saves our state millions of dollars while protecting these vulnerable children.
This year, CASA celebrates its 35th anniversary in Missouri. Its volunteers come from all walks of life. Last year alone, Missouri volunteers donated 85,000 hours in assisting approximately 3,300 children in the 40 counties with CASA programs. While these numbers are significant, there are nearly 11,000 other children in foster care who do not have the benefit of a stable relationship with a CASA volunteer.
I encourage you to learn more about CASA and, if you do not have such volunteers in your county, I hope you help initiate the process of creating a CASA program to help the abused and neglected children in your area.
We in the courts are so appreciative of these volunteers, and we thank them for the future they are trying to give the children of our state.