In a crowded child welfare system, abused and neglected children often get lost in the shuffle. According to Jan Huneke, CEO at Voices for Children, the average child remains in foster care for three years and attends nine schools by age 18. With a mission to advocate and represent these children’s best interests in court and in the community, Voices for Children provides them with a court-appointed special advocate (CASA advocate), which in turn, decreases their time in the system and increases their chances of reuniting with their family or being adopted. And these CASA advocates, who serve children from birth to age 21, are volunteers specially trained to stand up for and to speak for these kids in need.

“All of our volunteers go through a thorough screening process and receive 30 hours of preservice training to understand the role that they’ll be taking on,” Huneke says. “It’s important that they understand the court and the child welfare systems, as well as family dynamics and the needs of a child who has been abused and neglected so they can advocate for that child. Our volunteers basically take on the role of being the eyes and the ears of the court as they investigate how the child is doing.” While representing the child, Huneke says the CASA advocate makes recommendations on his or her behalf, so they spend a great deal of time each month visiting and developing a rapport with the child. “The advocate typically is the one person in that child’s life who is consistent throughout the case. So while other professionals come and go, the CASA volunteer is there throughout the process. They see how things have gone at school, and they know the child’s medical and mental histories. Our advocates really serve the whole child.”

The CASA movement got its start in the late 1970s with a judge in Seattle who was hearing cases that involved his making life-altering decisions for kids in foster care, Huneke notes. “He didn’t have the information that he needed to make him feel comfortable making these decisions. So he came up with the idea of using citizens to be his eyes and ears, and that’s when the CASA movement got its start.” In the early 1980s, a CASA pilot program was created in St. Louis County, and then Voices for Children began in the city in the mid- ’80s. “Both organizations evolved separately and served the separate jurisdictions until late last year when we merged,” Huneke explains.

Voices for Children’s Be The Difference Benefit is April 12, and Judge Glenda Hatchett will be the featured guest speaker. “This is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and it will enable us to give a voice to 150 children in foster care over the next year,” Huneke says. “And we’re very excited to have Judge Hatchett, who is the first African-American presiding judge of one of the largest juvenile courts in the country. She is known for her court TV show and is one of our national CASA spokespersons, as well, so this is a cause that is very near and dear to her heart. She’s a big personality, and she will inspire people to get involved and do more for our kids.”

Donald Suggs of St. Louis American also will be honored as the organization’s annual Community Superhero for his contributions to the community, as well as his efforts for Voices for Children. Huneke concludes by saying that breaking the cycle of abuse is not only beneficial to the child—it also is beneficial to our community. “Kids are our future. I know that seems so cliché, but it’s absolutely true,” she says. “If they’re not given an opportunity to have a healthy childhood, then we know what their life will be like as an adult and that’s not contributing to a healthy community. And it’s not just the monetary costs of unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse and treatment, but it’s the loss of a contributing member of our society. We can make a difference for these kids.”