When you think of the holidays, you probably have wonderful memories of family gathered around a table full of delicious homemade food, laughter, maybe an annual game of Monopoly or Mexican Train, presents under the tree, a festive gift exchange, and lots of warm hugs. If so, be very thankful, because you are one of the lucky ones. What you probably take for granted is what hundreds of children in the Topeka area have never known and can only dream about.
A whopping 2,960 children statewide were removed from their homes last year due to neglect or abuse. In Shawnee County, there are over 654 children who are in out-of-home placement. Shawnee County ranks second next to Sedgwick County for having the most children removed from their homes. What happens to all of these children? That’s where CASA comes in. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. We spoke with Debra Billingsley, CEO of CASA of Shawnee County to find out more about this amazing volunteer-based nonprofit.
Since 1987, CASA of Shawnee County has been serving the community’s at-risk children. It is a private, nonprofit 501 (c) 3 organization that recruits, trains, and supports community volunteers who assist the court in protecting the best interests of abused and neglected children in Shawnee County. (Shawnee County encompasses the cities of Topeka, Tecumseh, Rossville, Silver Lake, Auburn, Wakarusa, and Dover.) When the state steps in to protect a child’s safety, a judge may appoint a trained volunteer to advocate to make independent and informed recommendations in the child’s best interest. Sometimes the child’s CASA is the only stable, loving adult in their life.
Every year more and more abused and neglected children are placed in Shawnee County foster care for their own personal safety. Sadly, these children have overwhelmed our child welfare system. “Caseworkers have high caseloads and attorneys have hundreds of child clients,” Billingsley said. “They are not always able to offer the individualized attention that each child needs. Because child abuse cases are often complex, judges may feel that they are making decisions without complete information.”
A CASA’s role in abuse and neglect proceedings is to present the court with a unique and child-centered perspective regarding what is in the best interest of the child. A CASA volunteer, being assigned to just one or two cases at a time, can focus on gathering all of the pertinent information, meet regularly with the children, and report their findings to the judge so that the court can make an informed decision regarding a child’s future.
What does a CASA do in this role? Once appointed by a juvenile court judge, CASA volunteers begin a process of information gathering with the goal of guiding abused children out of the foster care system, identifying the child’s needs, and ensuring they receive rehabilitative services. They act as a communications link between the complicated pieces of the child welfare system. Volunteers gather all the pertinent information about their child’s case and make recommendations to the judge based on that information.
Not only do these volunteers assist in locating vital therapeutic and rehabilitative services to help the children deal with the trauma of abuse (psychological treatment, educational assistance, parent/family education, etc.), but they also make sure children receive special needs items such as eyeglasses, clothing, beds, tutoring, school supplies, backpacks, and other basic needs. CASAs are not the child’s social worker but are trained to know where the child can obtain community resources.
“There is no ‘typical’ CASA volunteer,” Billingsley said. “CASA volunteers come from all walks of life. We have computer technicians, retired executives, writers, teachers, realtors, nurses, doctors, and grandparents.” No special skills are required. “You just have to have a heart for children. We’ll train you in what you need to know,” she said. The only prerequisites for volunteers are that they must be 21 years old, submit a written application, and pass a background check.
Can a child advocate really make a difference? Research has shown that the introduction of just one caring adult in the life of an abused child can change the course of that child’s life forever. With volunteer advocates, children who have known only hurt, rejection, and disappointment from adults learn to trust, hope, and love. A court-appointed volunteer advocate makes a profound and positive difference for abused children.
Volunteers average 5-10 hours on their case per month. In the same amount of time that you spend each week doing something ordinary, like going to dinner or watching a movie, you can do something extraordinary - change the life of an abused or neglected child.
To become a CASA, complete an application at https://casaofshawneecounty.com/ or call (785) 215-8282. You can also support CASA of Shawnee County by donating online.
Billingsley emphasized the importance of fundraising. “As a private nonprofit, CASA relies on various resources,” she explained. “We receive support from foundations, individual and corporate contributions, public grant monies, and revenue from fundraising efforts like the Homes for the Holidays tour. It’s a fun opportunity to get into the holiday spirit and support a great cause!”
36th Annual Homes for the Holidays Tour
Featuring four homes decked out by local designers with towering trees, twinkling lights, floral displays, festive wreaths, and more.
Sat. & Sunday, Nov. 18th & 19th
Open House from 10:00 - 4:00
Tickets are $25 at the door or $20 in advance. ($20 tickets can be purchased online, or at these local businesses - Hy-Vee, Linen Tree, Porterfield’s, Blooms on Boswell, House2Home Design & Decor, Milk and Honey Coffee Co.)
Get a sneak peek of the homes on Friday followed by food and fun at Townsite Tower.
Friday, Nov. 17th
$100 tickets can be purchased online
All proceeds support CASA of Shawnee County