CASA Volunteers

Having fun at the All Abilities Playground in Washington are, in front, from left, CASAs Alice Poertner, Beverly Snowa and Jane Van Leer-Stephens, and in back, from left, Brenda Dempsey and Carol Haddox. Franklin County CASA is currently in need of more voluteers. Anyone over age 21 who is interested in learning more about CASA and whether or not they would like to volunteer can attend a kickoff meeting Tuesday, May 7, at 8 a.m. at the Exit 11 coffee shop, 1351 Jefferson St., Suite 120, in Washington. Current CASA volunteers and staff will be on hand to answer questions and provide information.

As he was nearing retirement a few years ago, Jim Armistead, 60, Washington, began thinking about what he would do with all of his soon-to-be free time: Travel, play golf, spend more time with family . . . but he also wanted to do more hands-on volunteering.

After decades working in corporate America, Armistead was ready for something where he could put his lifetime of experience and his compassion to work for the greater good.

“I started thinking about what I could do to contribute,” said Armistead.

His friend, Judge Dave Tobben, suggested he look into Franklin County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a nonprofit agency that advocates for the best interest of children of abuse and neglect who are under the protection of the Franklin County and Gasconade County juvenile courts. Through highly trained community volunteer advocates, the child’s needs are heard, researched and advocated for throughout the duration of the child’s time before the court, thus securing a safe and permanent home for all such children.

The agency’s mission fit perfectly with Armistead’s belief in supporting and protecting the family unit. For years, he and his wife, Mary, have been actively involved in providing the marriage prep classes at their parish, St. Francis Borgia, and at times they had even considered becoming foster parents too.

So Armistead sought out some CASA volunteers to ask them about the experience, and he liked what he heard. He signed up as a CASA in 2015, even before he retired. Now, four years later, he said it has been a wonderful experience.

“It’s challenging and rewarding at the same time,” said Armistead, noting he’s motivated by the children he’s helping. “Just trying to provide that mentorship and someone for them to reach out to.”

Armistead is one of more than two dozen seniors ages 60 and older who are currently serving as Franklin County CASAs, and Executive Director Glenda Volmert said she would love to have even more, because seniors make especially good volunteers.

“It’s their life experience,” she said. “Even if they haven’t been a parent, the life experience they bring to the table is so valuable.

“You never know what situation this child or this family will be going through that (the senior’s) life skills might be able to assist with. It could be related to parenting; they can play that grandparenting role. But it also could be their work experience. You could have someone who was a carpenter who can provide some skills now to a young boy or girl that may be a life skill they can use later.

“You just never know what impact you’re going to have or what experience you’re going to share that will impact that child,” said Volmert. “You’re opening doors by doing that.”

What’s Involved in Being a CASA

Franklin County CASA serves both Franklin and Gasconade counties, and the goal is for every child in foster care in those two counties to be assigned a CASA. Right now there are around 350 children in foster care here, but only 206 have been assigned a CASA, because there just aren’t enough volunteers, said Volmert.

“We have nearly 90 volunteers, and normally we figured about two kiddos per CASA, so we can use another 75 CASAs,” she said.

More than 30 percent of the current CASAs are seniors age 60 and older, but anyone age 21 and older is eligible to apply. The oldest CASA is 75.

“What’s appealing to volunteers is that CASA is flexible,” said Volmert. “CASA volunteers make their schedules and number of hours based on what is needed for the child. On average they spend 10-15 hours per month visiting with their child in their foster home, with their biological parents, and contacting other individuals who are important to the child’s life like a teacher or relative.

“They are the eyes and ears for the court, for the judge,” she said. “So they are out in the field, in the home, collecing information on how that child is doing and reporting back to the judge so that he or she can make the best decision based on all of the information they are given.

“CASA adds another piece to that puzzle the judge is trying to put together,” said Volmert. “We give information from the child’s perspective, sort of looking at the world through the child’s eyes.”

No Social Work Experience Needed

Jane Van Leer-Stephens, 70, Union, had worked in an office for 40 years before she signed up to be a CASA five years ago. As a mother of four grown children and now a grandmother of six, she has a heart for protecting children.

“I love kids, and being able to help them and be their voice has been an awesome, awesome thing to do,” said Van Leer-Stephens. “I feel good when I’m able to go to court and help them, see them happy at the end. Just to see the sparkle in their eyes when the decision ends up being what they want.”

Carol Gruber, 75, Union, who has been a CASA since 2007, has a background in journalism, “but my leanings have always been toward organizations that serve families,” she said.

“As a grandparent, I feel the children I have worked with (as a CASA), they do kind of relate to me like a grandma figure.”

That makes her feel good and needed, something all seniors want.

“Seniors need to feel our volunteer work is valuable, that our time is being spent wisely,” said Gruber. “As CASA volunteers, we see that what we do has a positive effect on the lives of children. I saw that right from the beginning.”

Brenda Dempsey, 61, Washington, was working as a registered nurse when she became a CASA five years ago. Her own children were grown and out of the house, and she had more time to give.

She had learned about CASA years earlier at the Spirit of Mercy banquet where her daughter was accepting an award and CASA also received an award.

“They gave a really heart-wrenching presentation and I thought, ‘Man, if I was ever going to do volunteer work someday, that would be one I would want to do,’ ” said Dempsey.

Years later, that thought came back to her one day while she was praying. So she picked up the phone and called the CASA office.

“It was really a God-thing,” said Dempsey. “I just decided it was time for me to do something, and I have not regretted it at all. It’s been wonderful.”

Training, Support Provided

CASA volunteers all complete an extensive 30-hour training course before they are assigned a case and there are staff volunteer coordinators who provide support and guidance to the CASAs as their cases progress.

Van Leer-Stephens, who is now working on her third CASA case, said she wasn’t intimidating about having to go to court or speak to the judge because the CASA staff did an excellent job of preparing her for the task.

“I sat in on a couple of cases that weren’t my own before I went for my own, so I kind of basically knew what to expect, but it wasn’t that I would have to say a whole lot anyway,” she said. “The judge would ask, ‘Do you have anything to add?’ If I did, I would state my feelings or observations — that I had seen the kids happy or seen the parents doing well or seeing them in the foster homes. That’s what the judge wants to hear — how the kids are doing, both mentally and physically. If they’re doing well or have a lot of problems.

“I’m just reporting my observations,” said Van Leer-Stephens, noting CASAs do have to write reports which the judge reads before court so he has an idea of what’s going on with the cases.

The training outlines the foster care system and the role of the CASA advocate as a voice for the child.

“We learned some scenarios and how they are handled, and we did some role playing so we would know how to appropriately respond in certain situations,” said Dempsey.

“The training is very good, but it’s always different when you get your first case; you’re a little nervous. But the coordinators there help you so much with any questions you have, so you’re not alone.”

Gruber agreed.

“People seem to think it takes someone special to do this. They say, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’ but the truth is that it’s something that a lot of people can do,” she said.

Dempsey said people fear they will get too attached to the children so the work will be too hard.

“But I don’t look at it like that,” she said. “I look at it as these kids need someone. There is a fine line; yes, you get attached, but it never has consumed me. I think people should give it prayerful consideration before they reject it. . . . I think people need to look at the other side. There are kids out there who need help and need a friend.”

And attending the training in no way commits someone to being a CASA. Gruber noted she wasn’t sure about being a CASA yet when she went to her first training.

“You can come to the training to see what CASA is all about, and then decide,” she said.

Armistead said he was most concerned about whether he would be able to relate to children, because he was a senior. But that has never been an issue.

“I have specialized in the teenagers, the older youth in the program, that’s even more challenging, so I had concerns about that,” he said, but the training was excellent and the staff volunteer coordinators who oversee the CASAs are very knowledgeable.

“Most have come from working for the state or other agencies, so they have a lot of experience and are there for you to ask questions,” Armistead noted.

“The CASA staff is very supportive and understanding of volunteers,” added Gruber. “They are right there to help you through all of this, because every case is different. And each CASA has a supervisor there to give advice and to be sure you feel confident in what you’re doing or at least have someone to talk through things.”

Dempsey admits that she was nervous about some aspects of the work, like calling up family members to ask about their relationship with the child. But that got easier as she pointed out to them that she is not part of the court system.

“I tell them that I don’t get to make the decisions. I am just meant to be there for the child, and anything you can tell me that would help with that, I appreciate,” said Dempsey. “I’m just gathering information to understand the situation . . . I may call the school counselor or the teacher or email the teacher, and most of them are very apprecative. They want the kids to do well, so they appreciate there is someone there going to bat for this child.”

Requires 10 to 15 Hours a Month

The time commitment of being a CASA runs between 10 to 15 hours a month. Volunteers are told to record their time spent doing everything involved with the case — from making phone calls to visiting with the child to writing reports.

“In the beginning it’s closer to 15 hours because you are doing a lot of investigating, getting to know the children and all the people involved in their lives,” said Dempsey.

But this work comes with an emotional commitment as well, the CASAs said. They become invested in these children’s lives and grow attached to them.

“It’s on my mind a lot more than it is action-wise,” said Dempsey. “Emotionally, when things are going rough for the child, like if the parents mess up after making progress, the child is the one who suffers, so that’s when it’s emotionally draining. That can be frustrating, because you love these kids so much.”

“It’s emotional. You can’t get away from that,” said Gruber. “These children sometimes don’t know the abuse or neglect that they suffered isn’t normal or healthy.”

But as tough as the cases can be emotionally, they also can be extremely rewarding, the CASAs all agreed.

Van Leer-Stephens noted that one child she worked with is now going to college and doing well.

“She’s very independent now and has done awesome. It’s just great to see her like that,” said Van Leer-Stephens. “The kids don’t always get sent back to their mom or dad. It’s what is best for the child, and that’s rewarding to me. It makes me feel good that I kind of helped them achieve that goal, whatever it is.”

CASAs are given a say in which cases they accept. They are allowed to review a case before they agree to be the CASA, and although they are asked to commit to staying with a case until it is resolved (which can take as long as 18 months or more), they do not have to take another case right away, volunteers said.

Both Armistead and Dempsey noted they have taken a break in between cases.

For most of the children in foster care, their CASA is the only consistent person in their lives during that time, said Volmert. The child might be moved from foster home to foster home or school to school, but their CASA is meant to be the same person from start to finish to provide some consistency.

That creates a unique bond between the CASA and the child, the volunteers said.

“I feel that I’m making a difference in the child’s life, whether he realizes it or not, and I know I am, because he knows I don’t judge him when he’s having a bad day or gets a little weird,” said Dempsey. “I’m rooting for them. That’s my job, to speak to the judge on behalf of that child, what’s in their best interest and what they want.”

Flexible Scheduling

Armistead noted that one reason he likes volunteering for CASA and why he thinks it is a particularly great fit for seniors is the flexibility in the schedule. Unlike other volunteer work that requires a person to work the same shift on the same day or time each week or month, CASAs get to set their own schedule.

“It’s a very flexible opportunity,” said Armistead, noting he picks what days and times he wants to make the necessary phone calls or visits, which means he is still able to take vacations and have time for his hobbies. “That’s very appealing to seniors. We don’t want a rigid schedule.”

Seniors who are interested in learning more about CASA and whether or not they would like to volunteer can attend a kickoff meeting Tuesday, May 7, at 8 a.m. at the Exit 11 coffee shop, 1351 Jefferson St., suite 120, in Washington. Current CASA volunteers and staff will be on hand to answer questions and provide information. No registration is necessary.

Applications will be available if they decide to move forward with volunteering.

Once an application is approved, a volunteer will have to go through a face-to-face interview with the CASA staff before moving on to training. The next training session will be held from mid-June to the end of July.

“What I love about CASA is it connects people in the community who have time to give to those who need it, which are the kids in foster care,” said Volmert. “It’s about giving special attention. So whether you are a senior or anyone over 21, you can be a great asset to a child.”

For more information on CASA, call 636-583-4422 or go to www.franklincountycasa.com.

If You Are Interested . . .

Seniors who are interested in learning more about CASA and whether or not they would like to volunteer can attend a kickoff meeting Tuesday, May 7, at 8 a.m. at the Exit 11 coffee shop, 1351 Jefferson St., suite 120, in Washington. Current CASA volunteers and staff will be on hand to answer questions and provide information. No registration is necessary.

Blue Sunday Day of Prayer

To recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, Franklin County CASA will hold a Blue Sunday Day of Prayer at churches around the community Sunday, April 28, asking people to pray for children who have been abused or neglected.