They say it takes a village to raise a child. But what if you have a child, but you don’t have a village? And whose job is it to make sure that every child really does have a village — a network of loving, safe and supportive adults who can help that child flourish? How can parents continue to advocate for their own children, while also considering the very real needs of other children?
As a parent, I asked myself these questions constantly in the months leading up to my decision to apply to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). I had been looking for an opportunity to get more involved in the mid-Missouri community for some time, but I knew I needed something flexible, something with autonomy, and something that allowed me to build meaningful and long-lasting relationships, especially with other children and families in my community. I found all of this and so much more through volunteer service with Heart of Missouri CASA.
Without any doubt, becoming a CASA has made me a better parent and a better neighbor. It’s forced me to confront my own biases and assumptions and it has brought me closer to understanding Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a “beloved community,” one where it’s possible to love fully without judgment or expectation.
A CASA volunteer enters a child’s life at a moment of unimaginable trauma. When a family is in crisis and a child is removed from their home, the child is placed in the foster care system and a judge appoints a trained volunteer advocate to make independent and informed recommendations in the child’s best interest. CASA volunteers join a team of other professionals dedicated to helping this child’s family address the challenges and vulnerabilities they face in providing a safe and stable home. Reunification with the family of origin is always the primary goal, unless that is not safe or possible, in which case the team advocates for the child to live with relatives or a loving adoptive family.
CASAs work slowly and deliberately. We are in the trenches of a messy bureaucracy — navigating a short-staffed statewide agency and a host of local support services, both private and public. CASAs seek out information and observations from all angles and perspectives — tracking school progress, healthcare and behavior changes that help guide recommendations. Most importantly, a CASA relies heavily on emotional intelligence to become the stable “heart” of the child’s case — never wavering in their dedication to the child’s best interest, even during the highs and lows of family disruption and unforeseen changes.
As the training process predicted, I have become deeply connected to the child I advocate for. Watching him grow and learn has been enormously rewarding and surprising in its tenderness and genuine affection. But more surprisingly, I have become deeply connected to the women who care for him — to his courageous mother, who is working through her own trauma to create a stable and safe home for herself and her son; and to his foster mothers, who have loved and cared for him as if he was their own, offering a kind of hospitality and patience that is genuinely awe-inspiring.
Every year, more than 650 abused and neglected children in Boone and Callaway counties pass through the 13th Circuit Juvenile Court System because they are unable to live safely at home. Heart of Missouri CASA is currently serving 57% of the kids in care but has a goal to serve 75% by 2023. The impact of a CASA on the lives of those children could be a game changer: research shows foster kids who have a CASA on average spend less time in the system by several months, they do better academically and they are less likely to return to the foster care system once they find permanency. There has never been a better time to get involved.
If you are curious but not sure, sign up for a CASA information session. Just learn a bit more about it and if it’s not the right fit, you’ll be that much closer to finding a way to connect yourself more deeply to your community through an organization and a volunteer role that suits you. To learn more about organizations in need of volunteers, visit the library’s Volunteering Guide.