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Laura Nauser was the 5th Ward Columbia City councilwoman in 2006 when she saw an ad in the newspaper. It was a time when her community was seeing increased juvenile crime rates, and Nauser knew something needed to be done.
The ad was for Heart of Missouri Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, seeking volunteers.
“I investigated and thought it was a good fit,” Nauser says. “Going into it, I had no idea what I would be doing.”
CASA volunteers are paired with children who are involved in abuse or neglect cases and watch out for the child, who may not have an adult in his or her life who can. Because cases can go on for so long, CASA volunteers often develop long-lasting relationships with their cases.
Nauser remembers her first case clearly, which involved two older boys.
“I was able to take them to the St. Louis Arch, and that was the first time that they had been out of Columbia,” Nauser says. “There are a lot of things that we take for granted, like maybe even just going to a restaurant. Several of my kids didn’t even know how to order a meal out. To get out of the Columbia regional area was a big deal for them.”
Volunteers vs. caseworkers
Volunteers are sworn in as officers of the court and become party to every case they’re involved with, which allows them access to case information. In the final stages of each court case, CASA volunteers give a recommendation to the judge on what they believe to be the best solution for the children.
CASA volunteers aren’t caseworkers, though some of their responsibilities are similar. Kelly Hill, program coordinator, says sometimes people confuse their volunteers with social workers, but there are key differences.
“They provide a different perspective,” Hill says. “They visit children, monitor their needs and watch how they are doing in their placement. They’re trying to build a strong relationship with the child.”
Caseworkers can have upward of 30 to 35 cases simultaneously, which makes it nearly impossible for a child with only a caseworker to get individual attention. CASA volunteers are paired with one case and are not assigned another until the first is completed.
Stability and self-esteem
Research shows that children benefit from the permanency the organization’s volunteers can offer. According to casaforchildren.org, children with CASA volunteers are:
“A CASA volunteer is the one consistent stable person in the child’s life,” Hill says. “And for some kids, they’re the only unpaid consistent person in their life. Think about how that can impact a child’s self-esteem.”
Though many of their volunteers have legal interests, CASA has volunteers from a variety of backgrounds.
“Sometimes people volunteer because they want to give back and want to do something for their community,” Hill says. “Volunteers have a compassion for children and want to make a difference. They’re also someone who has the time to devote and wants to do it consistently.”
In November, Heart of Missouri CASA extended its coverage into Callaway County, made possible through a $22,500 grant from the national CASA organization. Now that it has the funds, CASA is hoping to increase the amount of volunteers to further extend its coverage in Boone and Callaway counties.
“We’re serving about 22 percent of kids in those counties,” Hill says. “That’s the part of needing resources; we need to supervise and train more volunteers.”
Hill hopes that 22 percent will increase significantly in the coming years.
“We want to educate people about what we do and make a difference to the kids in the community,” Hill says. “There are a lot of agencies that do a lot for kids, but we’re working with some of the most venerable kids in the community. We’re always looking for support and for people to get invested in our mission and help out.”
Although the research affirms her belief that CASA volunteers drastically impact children’s lives, Nauser says she’s continually struck by how each child reacts to the organization’s mission.
“When a kid finds out that you don’t have to be there, that you’re doing it because you care for them, when they say, ‘You’re coming to see me and you’re not getting paid to?’” she says, “that’s probably the thing that makes the biggest impact.”