Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Mid-Ozark CASA has a continuing need for volunteers to work on behalf of children throughout the region. Donations are also needed.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers are trained to speak up for the best interest of abused and neglected children in the courts. They are appointed by a judge to review records, research information, and talk to everyone involved in a child’s case, making sure the child remains safe, until a permanent resolution is reached. There is no special experience required.
Mid-Ozark CASA serves the children of the 42nd Judicial Circuit Court. The program covers the five rural counties of Crawford, Dent, Iron, Reynolds, and Wayne. Over 200 children in the circuit are in foster care at this time. The program is in the process of expanding so that more of these children can be served.
Incorporated in 1993, the Mid-Ozark CASA Program is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, created by a small group of private citizens living in Dent County. The Mid-Ozark CASA Program provides organizational structure, leadership and training for community volunteers who serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children in south-central Missouri. The agency is governed by a volunteer board of directors, and is in good standing with the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, as well as the Missouri CASA Association and National Court Appointed Special Advocate and Guardian ad Litem (CASA/GAL) Association for Children (National CASA/GAL).
From 1993-2004, the program included the 42nd and 25th judicial circuits, serving nine counties and 6,000 square miles. The area covered was large, rural and difficult to service. In October 2004, as a result of strategic planning by the agency’s board of directors and a recommendation by the National CASA/GAL Association, the board adopted a resolution to split the CASA Program by judicial circuits. This division enhanced the CASA initiative and strengthened leadership and program implementation within each of the judicial circuits, improving services to the child victims. On July 1, 2005, as a result of the split, the Mid-Ozark CASA Program began serving only the 42nd circuit and a new agency, CASA of South-Central Missouri began serving the 25th circuit.
In 2007, the Mid-Ozark CASA moved the office location from Salem to the current location in Cuba. The 42nd Circuit covers five counties—Crawford, Dent, Iron, Reynolds, and Wayne—spread over 3,620 square miles. The Crawford County location is central within the five-county circuit and has the largest caseload of child victims within the circuit. The Cuba area offers a broader base from which to draw volunteers. Also, the need is greatest in Crawford County and the Circuit Court has been requesting the agency’s involvement in the county for years.
Since the move, the agency has seen a noticeable increase in volunteer recruitment and overall interest in the program. In 2009, the agency had three volunteers serving six children and in 2020 there were 44 volunteers advocating for 168 child victims in the foster care system.
Mid-Ozark CASA provides volunteer advocates to act as a voice for child abuse victims in court proceedings. The advocates are community volunteers who are carefully screened and receive 30 hours of training. The advocates are then duly sworn in as officers of the court. An advocate is appointed by a circuit judge to advocate for child victims of abuse and neglect.
Advocates attend all court hearings and Family Support Team meetings on behalf of the children. Advocates commit to visit their children at least once a month and monitor their progress in school and with their caretakers.
Advocates submit written reports which are entered into the case record by the court. These reports include a complete picture of the child’s life and wishes. The advocates give the children a voice and focus on getting each child a safe and loving permanent home. Each advocate is assigned only one or two cases (a child or a sibling group) at a time and they agree to stay with the case while the child is in the court system, in out of home placement.
The advocate helps each child victim navigate through the court system. The success of the program is directly related to the number of quality volunteers available to advocate for the children. For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.
Since Mid-Ozark CASA is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, it is not a line item in the court budget, nor does it have the support of a big umbrella group. The organization is continually in search of donors who will help support the mission of helping children find a permanent, safe home.
Since Mid-Ozark CASA is the only organization that is court-appointed to meet this need, it has a wide range of donor support. Some provide in-kind donations: a cattleman gives a large quantity of beef every three months, which is passed on to families; an attorney donates his services; and payroll is done by an accounting firm at no cost.
The organization is supported by businesses and organizations who supply needed items for the children. At Christmas, it receives gifts for the children from churches, organizations and individuals. Private donors also pledge monetary gifts monthly and/or annually. While the agency is fortunate to have such generosity, its needs continue to increase.
In the past 12 years, fundraising events have included Trivia Nights, 5K Races, Auctions, Yard Sales, Mouse Races, a Horse Show, and a Christmas Bazaar. Recently, the board settled on two large fundraisers per year—a Ladies Night Out in the spring and a golf tournament in the fall.
The number of children currently in foster care in each of the counties within the 42nd Judicial Circuit shows the need for CASA volunteers: Crawford 126, Dent 71, Iron 40, Reynolds 30, and Wayne 75 for a total of 342.
Mid-Ozark CASA currently has 44 volunteers helping 168 children, this increase is a direct result of having five (part time) Volunteer Coordinators with a presence in each of the five counties with a total population of 71,200 spread over 3,620 miles. The agency has become an integral part of the social services safety net. Mid-Ozark CASA is the only court-appointed special advocates in the 42nd Circuit. In an area devoid of many services and resources, it is a safe harbor.
In the five counties served by the agency, two in five families live in poverty, according to the 2019 Missourians to End Poverty Coalition. Likewise, in the 2020 Missouri Poverty Report, presented by Missouri Community Action Network, Wayne County is listed within the top 10 Missouri counties with the highest poverty rate and very high food uncertainty.
According to Annie E. Casey, Kids Count Foundation Center, concentrated poverty is a risk factor for children, families, neighborhoods and entire communities. High-poverty areas are more likely to have higher rates of crime, violence and unemployment. According to Missouri Kids Count for 2019, the number of families living in poverty has doubled in the last three years, in the 42nd Circuit—an alarming trend for children and their safety.
According to a CDC report dated December 11, 2020, reporting of childhood abuse has dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the closing of schools and other group settings, abused and neglected children have not been in as close a contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers, counselors, and health care workers. Because of the added stressors created by the pandemic, these incidents of abuse and neglect are significantly higher and more severe than what the numbers show.
As reported by Missouri Kids Count, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has released Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond. According to the report:
• One in seven Missouri families with children said that in the most recent week, there was sometimes or always not enough to eat in their household.
• Nearly one in six Missouri households with kids said they had only slight confidence or no confidence at all that they would be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time.
• One in eight families with children in Missouri lack health insurance, a figure which has been worsening over the past four years. More than a third of people with children in the household in the U.S. reported that they had delayed getting medical care in the previous month.
• In Missouri, one in five reported that they had felt down, depressed or hopeless in the previous week, indicating a widespread need for access to mental health care.
Many children served by Mid-Ozark CASA are victims of drug abuse by their parents or caregivers. Approximately 379,000 Missourians struggle with a substance use disorder. Of these, 17,500 are between the ages of 12 and 17, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report released in 2016.
In 2020 and the beginning of 2021, Missouri Community Action Network reports 20 to 30 percent of Missouri families are extremely likely to leave their homes due to late rent or mortgage payments.
Mid-Ozarks CASA Board of Directors include President Mary Buhrkuhl, Vice President JoAnn Bayless, Secretary Judith Ann Doyen, Vickie Gorsuch, Erik Lowes, Dori Perry, Mickie Watkins, and Cliff Williams. Employees include Executive Director Mary D. Heywood, Program Director Janet Jones, Crawford County Volunteer Coordinator Lisa Curtis, Iron and Reynolds counties Volunteer Coordinator Debra Clouse, Reynolds and Wayne counties Volunteer Coordinator Debra Thacker, Dent County Volunteer Coordinator Crystal Grosspietsch, and Crawford County Volunteer Coordinator Ann Mullen.