CASA of St. Louis County
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) was established in 1980 as a volunteer-based program to advocate for abused and neglected children in need of safe, permanent homes. “All the volunteers are regular people who go through our training program, and are sworn in as an officer of the court by the family courts as a CASA volunteer,” says community relations and foundations specialist Laura Beaver. “That allows them to understand all the details about a child’s case, look at records, make recommendations to the court, stay in contact with all parties involved, and most important, speak up for that child.”
Almost all referrals to CASA come from the family court system, according to Beaver. “When there is suspected neglect or abuse, state social workers are sent to investigate,” she explains. “And if neglect or abuse is proven, then the case comes to us.” Each child is assigned a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), or a court-appointed attorney, in addition to a CASA volunteer. “CASA volunteers are there not because the courts are doing a horrible job. They’re there because the courts are so overburdened. They don’t have time to fully know and understand what’s going on with each child,” she says. “Our volunteers fill the gap. They’re only carrying a caseload of one, so they can investigate more than a GAL and fully look out for the interests of a child.”
Last year, CASA had 298 volunteers serving 436 children. By the end of 2009, Beaver says the goal is to have 350 volunteers serving more than 600 children. “By 2012, we’d like to have enough volunteers so that every child in the foster care system will have his or her own volunteer.”
Volunteers are asked to commit to one year working for CASA, but Beaver says most of them stay on until their child is permanently placed. “At the end of the day, those volunteers are the only ones who know what happened and what’s needed, they’re the only consistent presence in the child’s life.”
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri
For more than 50 years, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) has made it its mission to provide low-income families with high quality civil legal assistance. “We help people survive, and ultimately thrive,” says executive director and general counsel Dan Glazier. “Without our services, many folks would be mired in so much of the legal challenges and difficulties of being poor.” Each year, the organization directly touches the lives of 17,000 clients and their families throughout Eastern Missouri. Another 23,000 people in the region are impacted through the group’s community education programs.
Glazier says the cases handled by LSEM’s staff of attorneys, social workers and volunteer lawyers most commonly involve survival issues like housing. “We help families avoid homelessness, whether it’s making sure a mother and her three kids have a roof over their heads or helping someone get decent and affordable housing,” he says. Another major concern is in the area of domestic violence. “Our Lasting Solutions program is designed to help clients end the cycle of family violence and rebuild their lives,” Glazier explains. Lasting Solutions provides assistance with domestic issues, such as securing an order of protection, legal separation, divorce and child custody cases. Other legal services include consumer, health, elder, education and immigration advocacy.
Because of its services and advocacy, LSEM gives people like Danila Chow a second chance. “Danila had a law background from her native Kazakhstan. When she came to us several years ago, she had a young child and was in an abusive marriage. She literally had no place to go,” Glazier recalls. “Along with some private attorneys, we worked with her, got her out of her marriage and helped her get the resources she needed.” Once Danila got her life back in order, she returned to law school and came back to LSEM to work as an advocate. “Jason Dodson, the managing attorney of the Lasting Solutions unit, was one of the lawyers who worked closely with her. He is now Danila’s supervisor during her internship in the program, and has become her mentor,” Glazier says. “She was so appreciative that when she gave birth to her second son, she named him Jason.”
Legal Advocates for Abused Women
Government statistics show that an estimated one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. But those figures don’t tell the whole story. “The number of cases reported represents only 10 percent of actual incidents of domestic abuse,” says Legal Advocates for Abused Women (LAAW) executive director Christine Hustedde. Each year, the organization responds to more than 8,000 cases, securing legal representation and other services for victims in times of crisis. “We’re the only local domestic violence organization that partners with law enforcement and the criminal and civil courts to break the cycle of violence at the earliest possible stage,” she says. “Some of the local shelters have a legal advocate on staff, but they often don’t have the people to assist everyone that comes in the door.”
The need for victims’ advocates is “tremendous,” Hustedde says. “Especially now, with the economy, we’re seeing an increase in cases,” she adds. “Our client base is usually lower-income, but we’re serving more of the middle-class, people who would typically be able to access services on their own, but their resources are limited now.”
LAAW’s staff and volunteer attorneys work with clients who are referred by law enforcement, the courts and other agencies. In addition to providing free legal representation, the organization has a crisis and legal help line to provide support, information and safety planning services. “We get a lot of calls from women who want to file an order of protection and don’t want to go back home,” Hustedde says. “We work to find them a safe place, even if it means spending the night at a hotel, until shelter becomes available.”
Because the system is not designed for victims, Hustedde says LAAW provides a much-needed service. “A victim will call the police because she wants a violent incident to stop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants the entire system to get involved in her life,” she explains. “It’s overwhelming for them when they get caught up in it. That’s where we step in: We walk them through, explain their options, and help them navigate the system.”