In 2005, Casy Berndt, a Columbia attorney with a background in family law, teamed up with eight community members to start a Court Appointed Special Advocates program in central Missouri.
The Heart of Missouri CASA officially formed as a Missouri nonprofit in February 2005 and began accepting cases in February 2006. Since then, CASA has served more than 90 children. The organization recently applied to become a United Way Agency, a designation that Berndt said is essential to the long-term viability of the organization.
Berndt served as board president from 2005 until June 2008, when she took her current position as acting program director – a role that requires tireless hours and a heap of passion. But Berndt credits the hard work of CASA volunteers for the success of the program.
“The Mission of Heart of Missouri CASA is to provide a voice through court-based volunteer advocacy, for the best interest of every abused and neglected child in Central Missouri,” Berndt said. “Our volunteers are so committed and dedicated to their CASA kids. They are selfless and so very giving of their time and talents.”
Currently, CASA has 30 volunteers (with 13 volunteers available to accept new cases) and is always looking for more dedicated community members to get involved. The organization relies heavily on community support, including donations and grant money, both of which have been sparse, Berndt said.
Many CASA volunteers don’t have any special law or social services background, and though the organization provides training, many times it is difficult, if not impossible, to prepare them for some of the situations they will encounter. Volunteers such as Joan Dutill and Chris Bouchard are the backbone of the organization, Berndt said.
“Our volunteers continue their work despite getting frustrated and heartbroken at times,” she said. “But when things work out, and families are reunited, or the kids are placed in a permanent home, they get such joy and find what the work and frustration were for.”
Dutill began her work with CASA in late 2006 when she read an article about the organization and how it helped abused and neglected children.
“I had been looking for a volunteer organization where I could make a difference,” Dutill said. “As I went through training and started to develop some perspective on the depth of the commitment I was about to make and the impact CASA volunteers have, I questioned whether or not I was even remotely qualified to speak on behalf of a child. … It has definitely been an on-the-job training experience.”
One of the most important services CASA provides is a big-picture perspective, Dutill said. She has worked on two cases, involving three children, and is still working on the first case she was assigned. Many pieces of the social-services puzzle only have the opportunity to see one side of things. Caseworkers are overloaded and often are replaced multiple times for each case, relying on notes from previous caseworkers. “I once read that it only takes one significant adult in a child’s life to make the difference between their success or their failure,” Dutill said. “That’s what drives me.”
“Each service provider has its own perspective on the case and has its own role. … The juvenile office sees one aspect; the caseworker sees another aspect; the foster family has their perspective,” she said. “Because we are involved with the kids, their teachers, therapists, foster family, caseworkers and natural family, we really get to know the child and develop a relationship with them on a very personal level.”
In many ways, CASA serves as the bridge between the social-services system and finding a voice for children in need. Like Dutill, Bouchard serves as an ally, mentor and sometimes the only constant in children’s lives. Bouchard completed his CASA training in winter of 2006 and received his first case in June of that year. He remains committed to this case.
“I am still working the only case I’ve had since volunteering for CASA,” he said. “I continue to do this work because I feel I’ve been able to help these kids in several ways. In addition to representing them in the system, I’ve also built a relationship with them as a person they can count on and trust as they move through the system. I’ve become a special person in these kid’s lives who spends time with them. Foster homes can have many children. A CASA worker provides a child someone just for them.”
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or want to learn more about CASA, visit heartofmissouricasa.com