BY LORI AMOS
So far this year, volunteers from the 37th Circuit Court Appointed Special Advocates Association (CASA) have represented 45 child abuse and neglect victims in Howell County alone.
“Unfortunately, as we increase our volunteer ranks, the number of child victims in state care in our four-county circuit – Carter, Howell, Oregon and Shannon – has increased significantly; from approximately 100 in 2016 to more than 300 in 2022,” says Connie Pendergrass, executive director of the 37th Judicial CASA. The non-profit organization exists to support and promote court-appointed advocates, volunteers who work with the justice system on behalf of abused and neglected children.
Children who are served by CASA have been placed in the state foster care system for many reasons, but normally due to child abuse and neglect. Pendergrass said that in the majority of cases, a former caregiver also had drug-related issues. Some children will be placed with a relative, some in foster care, and those with particular mental and emotional issues may be placed in a residential facility, according to Pendergrass.
As CASA prepares to host a murder mystery dinner theater in September to raise funds to support the organization’s mission to help children who have been neglected and abused, Pendergrass answered questions about the growing… organization, the challenges CASA has faced over the past year and what motivates it to want to help neighborhood children.
Can you tell the community members a bit about your organization and the growth that CASA has seen? CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASAs are volunteer advocates who defend abused and neglected children who are in the foster care system. A CASA will typically work with a child or group of siblings to ensure their needs are met under the jurisdiction of the court. The goal is to provide a safe and permanent home, and the CASA volunteer is a voice for the child in the justice system.
The mission of the 37th Judicial Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children is to recruit, train and support volunteers to advocate for every abused or neglected child in the care of the state in the 37th Circuit, so they can be security, a permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.
The 37th Judicial CASA is located at 101 Washington Ave., West Plains, and represents the four counties of Carter, Howell, Oregon, and Shannon. All of our work is coordinated from a small office on the lower level of an office building in Place de la Cour. We maintain a comfortable seating area with a sofa and a few chairs, books and games for children of all ages, and additional resources for families and caregivers. Our office hours are 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday and other hours are available upon request.
We invite anyone interested to come see us or call us at 417-255-2100.
What challenges has CASA faced over the past year? The pandemic has affected our ability to actively have direct contact with the children we serve. Our defenders continued to have contact by phone, text, face time and Zoom. Recruiting new CASA volunteers is a challenge taken up every year.
How did CASA overcome the challenges? After the removal of the COVID restrictions, we were able to resume regular face-to-face contact with our children. We increased our visibility throughout our tour through presentations to other organizations, information booths, our website, Facebook page, newspaper articles, billboards, radio and word of mouth through our current advocates and supporters. Through our efforts, we recruited, trained and eight new CASA volunteers were appointed and sworn in by Presiding Judge Steven Privette. Our aim is to continue to increase our numbers – there are many children waiting and in need.
Could you speak to community members about your role as Executive Director of CASA? Duties of the Executive Director include managing agency assets, writing and maintaining grants, directing all staff, setting business goals, ensuring tax compliance, overseeing day-to-day operations and execution of all CASA projects.
I assist and promote the mission and goals of the 37th Judicial CASA by maintaining positive relationships with internal and external stakeholders, achieving organizational goals, and maintaining sound financial practices.
The Executive Director has primary responsibility for directing the organization toward the goal of advocating for every child in state custody in our four-county circuit of Carter, Howell, Oregon, and Shannon for whom a judge requests pro bono counsel.
The Executive Director reports to and is accountable to a CASA Board of Directors. The Executive Director works with the Board of Directors to define strategies for CASA and implements plans to ensure that our agency’s mission is fulfilled and in line with CASA national standards and regulations.
What made you want to help foster children? I am a retired teacher and school administrator who has spent many years working with and advocating for children with special needs within the community. I have been working as a volunteer advocate with CASA since early 2019 and continue to have cases. I think it gives me the unique opportunity to see how the system works on both sides.
When I was given the opportunity to be appointed Executive Director, my goal was and continues to be to increase the visibility of CASA as an organization and highlight the need for trained volunteers. These caring and dedicated individuals are a consistent voice for children in care.
In Missouri, there are approximately 1,600 dedicated volunteers advocating for thousands of children, and 32 of those advocates volunteer right here in our community, but we need more.
Is there an inspiring story that you recently experienced in your role at CASA that you could share with readers? It’s a story we all share and it’s such a heartwarming reminder that we’re making a difference in the lives of our children. This was written by a teenager who chose to stay in the foster care system until the age of 21. Their names are withheld to preserve confidentiality:
“The CASA program has been a huge help in my life. It’s a great program with people who really care about our benefits. I was 14 when I met my CASA lawyer. I was living at Fair Haven Children’s Home and I didn’t have anyone who really cared about me. I had been in and out of foster homes and group homes for a few years. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to who would actually listen. She helped me in so many ways, but a big part was just that she honestly cared about me and was always there if I needed to talk.
After Fairhaven I was taken to Lakeland Behavioral Health Hospital where I had no one and life was just hard. The other girls weren’t people I could be friends with and I couldn’t tell them how I felt. Whenever my CASA called me or visited me, it always brightened up my day and even my week. There was a time when Lakeland didn’t have shampoo or conditioner, and my CASA visited me just so she could bring me some. She has always been an amazing person and I don’t know where I would be without her.
I finally found my forever family after moving around a lot. I had been through many social workers, but my CASA was still there through it all. She was there when I started high school and was there to see me graduate. She has been with me through some of the toughest times and some of the happiest times. My CASA is there to help me in all the major stages of life. She helped me apply for my first job. The CASA program is amazing and it’s something we foster kids really need. They hear us when others don’t, which is really necessary in young people. I hope this program continues to be funded and supported because everyone deserves a CASA worker who will be there for them when no one else is.
In terms of legislation and funding, are there any laws or regulations that you think lawmakers should pass to help foster children in the area? During this last legislative session, Missouri lawmakers voted and approved an increase in state appropriations to MOCASA which Governor Mike Parson signed into law. MOCASA transfers much of this funding in the form of grants for new and existing CASA programs.
Any suggestions I have would be directed to MOCASA, and they would think about how to advocate for any changes.
8) How many staff and volunteers do you currently have? Currently we have a Program Coordinator, Kathleen Wolf, Registered Clinical Social Worker; a volunteer coordinator, Shari Perkins, Master of Science in Criminal Justice, and myself, Connie Pendergrass, Education Specialist. We have 32 volunteer advocates serving 45 children at this time.
9) Are there recognition activities that CASA has taken over? Recognition activities include annual recognition dinners that recognize our staff and community partners; office vacation meetings; and appreciation and team-building picnics at the home of one of our board members. Volunteers receive birthday, thank you, and other event cards signed by board members and the circuit judge. They also receive an official CASA binder, pens, shirts with our logo and other items commemorating their excellent work.