Overland Park & Leawood

CASA volunteers help foster kids find a voice

After speaking at the Promise of Hope luncheon, Makaila Gay (center), 17, hugged her friends Kristin Wyatt (left) and Jillian Lewis.
After speaking at the Promise of Hope luncheon, Makaila Gay (center), 17, hugged her friends Kristin Wyatt (left) and Jillian Lewis. The Kansas City Star

At age 3, Makaila Gay was adopted by parents who would turn out to be abusers.

She was slammed against walls for not doing her chores correctly. She was yelled and cursed at with words that no one should have to hear. She had medication jammed down her throat. One night she was banned from the house to spend the night in the garage. If it’s so bad, then leave, her parents would tell her. Gay was stumped. She felt powerless.

“I was too scared,” said Gay, now 17. “This was my life. This is what I knew.”

Fortunately, school authorities were notified about the abuse, and Gay was removed from her adoptive family when she was 13. She was placed in a foster family, and her case worked its way through the state system for abused children. Four years later she was adopted by a loving, supportive family in Overland Park.

Through it all, one adult stood by her side: a court-appointed special advocate, called a CASA. Week by week, conversation by conversation, Cindy Laufer got to know Gay. Laufer earned her trust and learned what the teen needed to thrive. Laufer made the judge, the social workers, the prosecutors keep sight of what was best for Gay.

And Laufer did it all as a volunteer.

“That really made a difference,” Gay said. “She was there because she really wanted to be there. That changed our relationship from the beginning when she told me that.”

Gay’s story might not have turned out so well if she didn’t have a CASA volunteer advocating for her. And too many children in Johnson County don’t.

CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties serves only one-third of the children in the state child welfare system in Johnson County. Last year, CASA volunteers served 327 of the 963 children under court protection in the county.

There are currently 113 children on a waiting list for a CASA volunteer in Johnson County, according to CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties.

The nonprofit wants to change that by adding more volunteers.

CASA leaders and court officials know that the child welfare system works best for children who have an advocate. Children who have CASA volunteers are less likely to incur new abuse and neglect. In the past three years, 95 percent of the children with CASAs did not re-enter the courts in Wyandotte and Johnson counties, according to CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties.

“They are going to be stable and permanent homes,” said Lois Rice, executive director of CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties. “They are not going to get re-abused. (They) go back to parents or adoptions. That’s where they are going to grow up and be safe and survive. Ninety-five percent of the kids with CASAs have this outcome.”

The need for volunteers is growing. Johnson County is one of the area’s fastest-growing communities for children in need of care, the state’s designation for children in state custody because they have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.

Children fare better with CASA volunteers, Laufer said.

“It’s always better if we’re there,” Laufer said. “These are tough cases.”

CASA volunteers are the the eyes and ears for judges making decisions for children under court protection. CASA volunteers work with children in foster care waiting for a forever home, whether it is back with their biological family or an adopted family.

The national program, founded by a Seattle judge nearly 40 years ago, addresses the problem of children falling through the cracks in an overloaded court system. The volunteers are appointed on behalf of children to serve their best interests in court.

And while social workers turn over with regularity, the CASA volunteer is there for the long run, said Johnson County District Judge Kathleen Sloan.

Some children in the system wait for years for a permanent home, she said. One child has been waiting for a forever home since 2003, Sloan said. It is why she would like to see every child in foster care have a CASA volunteer.

“Sometimes it takes years and years, which is why CASAs end up being so important,” Sloan said.

CASA volunteers provide consistency in children’s lives, Sloan said. While case managers and other court officials manage scores of cases, CASA volunteers serve one case at a time and can have no more than four siblings in that one case.

And while foster parents, social workers and teachers appear and disappear from a child’s life, the CASA volunteer remains. When children change foster homes, it means a new school, new classmates, new teachers, new counties and new neighbors.

CASAs stay for the duration, Sloan said. They are a consistent adult in a child’s life until permanent placement has occurred.

“Once they have a CASA volunteer, that’s it,” Sloan said. “That’s their CASA volunteer.”

CASAs make observations, collect objective information and communicate with various professionals and family members on behalf of what is best for that child.

“They really are the eyes and ears of the court,” Sloan said. “They give me information about how children are doing from a lot of different sources.”

CASAs meet weekly for one hour one on one in the child’s foster home, school or library. Meetings are informal and casual. It’s a time to have fun and play with children, Rice said. Depending on their age and interests, they kick around soccer balls, play board games, listen to music, play “grocery store,” read or help with homework.

During their weekly visits, CASAs find out what a child needs educationally, medically, physically or psychologically, Rice said. They communicate with therapists, teachers, parents, case workers and foster parents to draw a complete picture of the child they are assisting.

“They are there for those kids,” said Don Hymer, an assistant district attorney with the Johnson County district attorney’s office. “They have no other agenda. They are looking out for the needs of the child every day. They report that back to myself or others in the system. They just have big hearts, and they just love trying to help out children in a tough spot. It’s a great organization.”

During his career in sales, Tim Phillips was a fundraiser for various charities. Once he retired, he wanted to contribute in a different way — by making a tangible difference in the life of a child. CASA was a perfect opportunity to do that. Five years later, he has worked with three children.

“It’s personal,” Phillips said. “You know everything about that kid. You know what they’ve been through. You talk about their dreams. That’s so different than any other charity. You are the one consistent adult in that kid’s life.”

Phillips would like to see more CASA volunteers, especially males. It doesn’t take that much time, he said. Volunteers average 10 hours a month.

“It’s been very rewarding for me because I can actually see the strides the child is making,” Phillips said.

Folks from all walks of life are volunteers, Rice said. They are men and women 21 years and older working full- or part-time or who are retired. They are mothers, fathers, grandparents, accountants, marketing professionals, college professors, military personnel, federal employees. There is no special skill, Rice said, just a desire to make a difference.

“It’s not what you’ve done,” Rice said. “It’s that you have the concern about the children in the community and make their lives better.”

CASA volunteers are screened and trained. They receive 30 hours of training in class, online and in a courtroom setting. They are educated on substance abuse, mental illness and domestic issues. They learn about the foster care system, government agencies involved, personal safety, indicators of child abuse and neglect, family dynamics and how to write a report to the judge. CASAs receive ongoing support from staff supervisors.

“They learn what advocacy is,” said Nina Kimbrough, recruitment and training director with CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties. “They learn how to research the history and gather information from all those involved in the child’s life.”

CASA volunteer Joan Jacobson, now retired, works with older teens who have aged out of the foster care system in CASA’s Fostering Futures program. She works with young adults to help them develop life skills such as opening a bank account, securing housing, paying rent, pursuing an education.

“This is a program that helps teenagers who turn 18 transitioning to independent living,” Jacobson said. “We’re that bridge from foster care system to their independent living. We try to make them aware of all the things they are going to have to deal with when they age out of the system in Kansas.”

CASA honored Jacobson’s efforts at the CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties Promise of Hope luncheon and 30th anniversary celebration on April 2 as one the local CASA’s founders. Jacobson was an officer with the National Council of Jewish Women in 1985 when the council and the Tenth Judicial District of Kansas launched Johnson County CASA, which later expanded to Wyandotte County.

Jacobson, a former high school counselor, said working as a CASA volunteer allows her to continue helping children.

“You are not out there alone,” she said. “There is a lot of support from the CASA organization to help you.”

Soon after Makaila Gay’s abuse came to light and she was placed into state protective custody, she met Cindy Laufer.

Laufer was a good listener, Gay said. She was a confidante. She reinforced Gay’s values such as her faith, being kind to others and serving the community, her goal to go to college, and the myriad of school activities that Gay loved so much, like playing the clarinet and saxophone in her high school band.

When Gay lamented to Laufer that she would not be able to afford the $800 cost of a school band trip to New York City, Laufer went to work for the freshman. She told Gay about a special CASA fund dedicated for activities such as this. Laufer secured $600 for the weeklong trip, and a family member made up the difference.

“I thought that was really awesome that a CASA did that for me,” Gay said. “They paid all but $200 of my trip.”

Laufer’s advocacy led Gay to decide to leave a well-intentioned foster family when the situation deteriorated.

Laufer stood by Gay’s side as she waited to be adopted.

Gay met her forever parents about two years ago at a barbecue. Tim and Suzanne Gay had been taking steps towards adopting a teen. They knew they wanted a girl. After meeting Makaila, the Gays began meeting her dinner, coffee and ice cream to get acquainted. There was a spark on both sides. Laufer saw it, too.

“This just felt right,” Gay said. “It wasn’t awkward. The time we had together was a lot of fun. These people are going to be my parents.”

The Gays gradually invited Makaila to spend afternoons, evenings and overnight in their home among their six biological children. Everything was on Makaila’s time, Tim said. She moved into the Gays’ Overland Park home in 2013. The following year they threw a party for her to celebrate her formal adoption into the family.

It’s a happy ending with new beginnings, the Gays said. Life is different in Makaila’s forever family. She has a mom who listens. She has a dad who encourages her to make decisions for herself. She has teenage sisters to hang out with and relax. She has younger siblings she enjoys watching grow.

The Blue Valley Southwest High School senior plays soccer, works as a lifeguard and swimming instructor and volunteers for community service. She plans to attend Kansas State University this fall to major in social work.

“This is definitely the largest family I have been a part of,” Gay said. “I think it’s great having so many siblings. You are never bored. This is my forever family.”

Tim says CASA volunteers help children to gain their voice, especially in older youth like Gay. Unless someone has experienced abuse and neglect, it is hard to know how that affects self-esteem, identity and the inability to advocate for yourself, he said. CASAs are a voice for that child, but also help children advocate for themselves, Tim said. Kids who have been abused lose their ability to speak out for themselves, he said.

“They are coaching and helping the child learn self-advocacy,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal. The CASA is not going to be in their life for the rest of their life.”

Gay stood at the podium before 600 well-heeled adults at the Promise of Hope CASA fundraiser luncheon earlier this month. She was upbeat and poised as the crowd finished their lunch. Attendees later remarked on her maturity and confidence.

Gay told the story of her difficult childhood.

Laufer listened and understood her, Gay said. She let Gay know she was old enough to make her own decisions and stand up for herself.

Gay no longer needs a CASA, but her friendship with Laufer continues to thrive today.

“I didn’t have to prove to her I could make my case,” Gay said. “She built a trusting relationship. She helped me to find my voice. She encouraged me to persevere.”

The most important thing a CASA volunteer can do, Gay told the crowd, is to listen and be a friend. Everyone can listen and everyone can advocate, she said.

Gay encouraged CASAs in the audience to continue their efforts on behalf of children.

CASA needs more heroes like Laufer, she said.

“The time invested in each kid is time worth spending,” Gay said. “Each child deserves having such an admirable individual to give them a voice. The time you put into us is incredible. Continue caring for the kids in need.”

To learn more

For more information, call 913.715.4042 or visit CASAJWC.org.

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