CASA advocates for Jackson County abused and neglected children hit milestone, but cases are on the rise

The sad and ugly circumstances of their young lives bring them into “the system.”

A cadre of unpaid volunteers helps to get them out.

Those CASA volunteers — Court Appointed Special Advocates — provide abused and neglected children with the one-on-one attention that social workers, judges, lawyers and other family court workers just don’t have the time and resources to attempt.

And this year in Jackson County, CASA for the first time in its 30-year history will have served 1,000 children during a calendar year.

It’s a “good news, bad news” milestone, according to Martha Gershun, executive director of Jackson County CASA.

While CASA has been able to help more children than ever before, the need for such help is also growing.

Since 2008, the number of abuse and neglect cases referred to Jackson County Family Court has increased 38 percent, according to court records.

“It’s a horrible thing that so many kids need help,” Gershun said. “But it’s a good thing that CASA is there to help.”

While CASA has been able to staff more cases than ever before, it’s able to represent only about one-third of the children brought into the system.

Gershun thinks the continuing economic downturn, coupled with decreased funding in Missouri for social programs, creates stress on families. The impact is particularly profound for those living in poverty, fueling the increase in abuse and neglect cases.

“Sooner or later,” she said, “it gets taken out on the children.”

CASA can’t control what leads an abused or neglected child into the system. The mission of CASA volunteers is to ensure that a child, once in the system, has a voice in the proceedings. While a social worker may have several dozen cases at a time, Gershun said the volunteers generally focus on only one child or sibling group.

They in essence become private investigators, meeting with the child, the family and teachers, learning as much as they can about the child’s circumstances and needs.

“It’s their job,” she said, “to know the case inside and out.”

Then they must communicate that information to the family court judge or commissioner who ultimately determines what is in the best interest of the child.

“We have an incredibly good working relationship with them,” said Jackson County Family Court Administrative Judge Justine Del Muro. “We are fond of CASA.”

The volunteers provide a valuable service to the court, she said.

“When a child first comes into the system, there is often an unclear picture of what is going on in that child’s life,” Del Muro said.

By delving so deeply into each child’s case, she said, the CASA volunteers can fill in those gaps in knowledge for the court.

And the work they do for children is exceptional, the judge said.

“They provide a sense of stability and safety for a child going through a chaotic time in their lives,” she said.

For volunteers like Kathy Bussing, the work can be challenging. Becoming immersed in the lives of children who have suffered horrible abuse or severe neglect can be emotionally draining, she said.

But Bussing of Leawood, a volunteer for seven years, said the payoff is worth all of the work it takes to be a volunteer.

“What keeps you going is seeing the kids better off when they leave than they were when they came into the system,” Bussing said. “I couldn’t keep coming back if it didn’t mean something for me.”

Shannon O’Sullivan of Kansas City, a CASA volunteer for four years, likens the work to being a “foot soldier” to make sure all of the child’s needs are being met.

“The most fulfilling thing is finding a safe, permanent home for a child,” she said.

Jackson County CASA now has about 300 volunteers, and statistics show that their presence in the process can make a difference. Children with a CASA volunteer assigned to their cases are half as likely to be re-abused or re-enter the system. CASA also estimates that every dollar spend on CASA can save $23 in spending for the family court and foster care systems.

Gershun said Jackson County CASA enjoys a “tremendous” retention rate for volunteers but always needs more.

“There are hundreds of more children on the waiting list,” she said.