Among a multitude of joyful and sometimes searing memories from 13 years volunteering at Franklin County CASA, one moment in particular never fails to warm Carol Gruber’s heart. She was attending a “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” at East Central College with the 9-year-old she’d been assigned legal advocate for, and another patron at the play starting talking with them before the show.
“They asked, ‘What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this year?’ ” Gruber said, recalling the scene recently from her Union home. “(The child) said, ‘Having Ms. Carol as my CASA.’ ”
When Gruber first joined Franklin County CASA in 2007— a year after its forming in 2006 — she knew little about the intricate web of foster care, court proceedings, counseling and more that faces children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. An article in The Missourian promised that volunteers needed no prior knowledge or training — just patience and a caring heart for children.
Now, nearly 14 years later, Gruber is retiring from the organization, having seen nine young children through that process to its resolution, either in adoptions or in reunification with their birth family. She’s kept in touch with all nine, some into adulthood now, and lovingly brags about their accomplishments to her friends and family as if they were her own grandchildren.
“It’s been quite a joy for me,” Gruber said.
CASAs — or Court Appointed Special Advocates — are volunteers who are matched with a child or group of siblings who have been placed in foster care and are going through legal proceedings. The volunteers act as a support system for the child and also compile reports about the child’s situation for the juvenile court judge until the child’s case is decided, which often takes years.
That’s what happened in one of Gruber’s early cases — an 8-year-old boy who had been abused. The child was on the autism spectrum and had learning disabilities, and he was transferred to four different foster homes. In each, Gruber helped him make happy memories of playing whiffle ball or going to the neighborhood swimming pool. The third home was in Columbia, a two-hour drive one way for Gruber.
“Because he was moved out of the area, I was given the option if I wanted to remain as his CASA,” she said. “This boy had no family, no one to visit him. I was the one consistent person in his life. So I decided to stay with him.”
When the boy’s case finished years later, he was put in a group home that Gruber still visits. She said that although the case had been her toughest one yet, she never considered not coming back when it ended. There were too many children in need.
“Whenever I felt emotionally drained by what was happening with my case, I would think about the kids and how hard it was for them,” she said.
At the August 2021 CASA board meeting, Glenda Volmert, Franklin County CASA executive director, honored Gruber as a vital part of the organization’s mission.
“Carol has been a driving force in the community as a whole, so when she chose to be a part of CASA, that was a true blessing for us,” Volmert said. “There was not a case I couldn’t give her. What our kids need is that attention, kindness and devotion, which is what Carol was able to give them.”
Although the number of Franklin County CASA volunteers has swelled to about 140 since the organization’s beginning, there are currently more than 100 additional children in the county who would be eligible for a CASA if there were one to appoint them.
“The goal has always been to have a CASA for every child,” Gruber said.
Since 1997, the average number of children in foster care in Franklin County per 10,000 has doubled, and the county average has been higher than the state average every year since 2010, according to state data. From April 2019 to March 2020, 135 children were removed to foster care in Franklin County. The average number of children in care on a given day during that year was 291 children.
The reasons for children being removed to foster care vary widely, and Gruber has seen several in her years as an advocate. In one instance, a parent had undiagnosed mental health disorders and with proper medication and counseling was able to care for their child again . In another instance, Gruber worked with a child who was removed because their parents were experiencing homelessness.
In both cases, Gruber stressed that the issue was not whether the parent loved their child adequately.
“I have had people say to me, ‘How can those parents not love their children?’ And that’s not really true. Parents can love their children very much, and the children certainly love them, but because of circumstances in their life, they’re not able to be responsible parents,” Gruber said. “And my heart goes out to them.”
Gruber said she’s had multiple cases in which the child’s parent has been suffering from addiction, something the child rarely understands. In one case, among the most serious she’s seen, the child was born addicted to substances themselves.
However, Gruber stressed that the heartbreak she feels for each child she advocates for is always overshadowed by the jubilation she and the entire team of caseworkers and other specialists feel when a child is reunified with their family or adopted.
“It’s a miracle,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Apart from the nine days that her children’s cases were finalized, one of Gruber’s most memorable days as a CASA was in January 2016, when she was honored with the David W. Soukup award, named for the Seattle judge who founded CASA in 1976. She was also selected to attend the national conference of CASAs in Boston in 2018. The conference brings together representatives of the 950 CASAs across 49 states, which match more than 93,000 volunteers with children in foster care.
Gruber stressed that anyone, of any background, can do the same.
“The training all CASAs receive is really thorough,” Gruber said. “It’s about 30 hours, and it (covers) all aspects of what you’ll do as a CASA.”
Although a majority of CASAs are people who are retired, the minimum age one can be to sign up is 21. As she steps away from being a CASA, Gruber hopes more people will seek the organization out and be an advocate for children.
“I think, of all the volunteer things I have done in my life, CASA has really been the most rewarding and the most meaningful.”
To become a CASA volunteer, complete an online application at franklincountycasa.com.