When separation threatened a tight-knit pair of abused and neglected young siblings, a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) stepped in to give them a voice. “Their sibling bond was so strong that the CASA fought for them to stay together, and a family did end up adopting them together,” says Voices for Children CEO Jan Huneke, recalling her first experience leading the life-changing organization. “This had a huge impact on them as children and adults.”
To give an even stronger voice to kids, the almost 30-year-old nonprofit, Voices for Children, merged with CASA of St. Louis County in 2011. Since the organizations joined forces, 300 CASAs have annually served more than 830 kids from birth to age 21. CASAs represent kids inside and outside the court system, helping them move from foster care to a safe, stable home, where they have a chance for a brighter future. “A CASA is there to let a judge know what the child wants and needs, as well as make recommendations for their education and health care services,” Huneke notes.
Among kids served by Voices last year, almost 70 percent were physically abused, more than 10 percent suffered sexual abuse and 35 percent experienced physical neglect. In addition, the kids are diagnosed with serious psychological or educational challenges at a rate two to seven times higher than the general child population. With 30 hours of in-depth child advocacy training, CASAs are ready to address these issues through working with professionals, from attorneys to social workers, doctors and therapists, to ensure each kid is receiving the right services and support. “There are enormous differences when CASAs are on the case representing a child,” Huneke explains. “Children get out of foster care much faster with a volunteer, are much less likely to return to foster care and receive more needed services.”
CASAs have a powerful role on the frontlines of a child’s life, Huneke continues. “If someone is looking to truly have a significant impact on a child, this is the best opportunity for doing that. You really can change what a child’s life looks like and break the cycle of abuse and poverty for generations to come. It’s a big commitment, but it has huge impact on a child for a lifetime.” The process not only changes the child’s life, it impacts the adult volunteer. “There have been volunteers who have said it is the most important work they have ever done outside of raising their own kids.”
And with 2,000 kids in foster care each year in St. Louis city and county, even more volunteers are needed to fulfill this life-changing role, Huneke says. “We only serve about 40 percent of kids in foster care right now. We need many, many more volunteers—they are our most critical resource.”
To further support this vital children’s service, the nonprofit’s Be The Difference Benefit will be held on April 18 at Windows on Washington. The event, which begins with a 6 p.m. cocktail reception and includes a dinner and special program, will shed more light on the struggle of local children and how CASAs improve the course of their lives. The organization also will honor its 2013 Community Superheroes, judges Michael Burton and Jimmie Edwards. The veteran juvenile court system judges will reflect on their time on the bench and share decisions they faced making on behalf of kids. And as the organization’s core fundraiser, the night will help give even more children a voice.