Imagine how difficult it is to be an abused or neglected child who has been removed from your home and placed under court protection. Now, imagine the added challenges of being a LGBT youth in that situation.
The special needs of these children are now being addressed by volunteers from Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), who advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected kids under court protection – over 1,000 children this year. More volunteers are desperately needed.
Through contact with the child, family members, and other interested parties, a CASA volunteer provides critical information to the judge so that the best possible decisions can be made regarding where an abused/neglected child should live and what medical, educational, and therapeutic services they need.
“These kids are struggling because they’re foster kids. Being LGBT just compounds their struggles,” says Karrie Duke, Jackson County CASA’s director of volunteer programs. “We went for years without having any kids identify themselves as LGBT. Now we have several CASA kids who are trying to figure out if they’re LGBT, some have said they’re gay, and one … is transitioning sexes.”
Duke has led Jackson County CASA’s efforts to educate volunteers about working with LGBT youth. A recent continuing education program on the topic drew the largest attendance in Jackson County CASA’s history. And information about how to work with LGBT youth and find community resources has been integrated into the training for all new CASA volunteers.
Duke has a particular understanding of the struggles that LGBT youths face. Growing up in a conservative farm community, Duke knew by the time she was a teenager that she “was different and it was not OK.” After moving to the city and seeing other people living openly gay, positive lives, she left her 17-year marriage and, at age 36, came out. Her family still does not accept it.
“With this younger generation, they are so much more comfortable and are coming out. The kids are more accepted by their peers,” Duke says.
M. Courtney Koger, a former CASA volunteer and current board member, agrees. “When I was a teenager, being gay was so far off the radar it didn’t occur to me. Now, our culture is more open and accepting, and the existence of gay people is not so hidden. And what I think is happening is that children, teenagers, young adults are realizing and able to name and act on their feelings at a much younger age. And I hope that, as acceptance for the gay community grows, that the process is not quite as agonizing and questioning as it used to be, but I also am glad I’m not in junior high and having to go through it myself again.”
Koger, a partner at Kutak Rock LLP, became involved with Jackson County CASA as a volunteer attorney. One of her cases involved the Division of Family Services (now Children’s Division) not only removing children from the home but also taking a newborn from the hospital before the parents could flee with her.
“I think we saved that little girl’s life,” Koger says.
“A lot of what I do on a daily basis involves large companies and somebody’s money, but it’s very rare that anything I do directly involves a life. So to be able to make a concrete change — not in just the youngest girl’s life, but in all of her siblings’ lives — by getting them out of an abusive situation and into a healthier, happier, more supportive environment, that’s something I don’t get to do on a daily basis. And it’s not something I want to do on a daily basis because I don’t think I’m tough enough to handle it and have to make those kinds of calls and have those kinds of responsibilities every day. But when you work with CASA, you do have that chance to be that involved in one, two, three or more siblings’ lives in ways you just can’t do somewhere else.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the most pure,” says Cheryl Dobbe, who has been a CASA volunteer for three years. “You can’t expect anything back. You find things in yourself you didn’t know you could give.”
Dobbe says that one of the children she worked with had exactly one adult in their life who wasn’t a paid professional – her. “There is no other adult in this child’s life that is not paid to be there. I think that’s about the saddest thing in the whole world.”
“You can’t sit there and say somebody should do something about that because I am somebody. You are somebody,” Dobbe says.
Although each case is different, a CASA volunteer usually spends about 10 hours a month meeting with the child, speaking with others involved, and attending meetings or court hearings. Hours are flexible and can be completed within the limits of even the most hectic schedule. There is no need for any special skills or education – just a background check, training, and a heart for helping children.
Children who have a CASA volunteer to advocate for them are half as likely to be re-abused and re-enter the court system, more likely to receive timely and appropriate health and behavioral services and to be placed in a permanent, safe home. For 2012, 95 percent of children who had one of these advocates had not re-entered the Jackson, Johnson or Wyandotte County courts. Every dollar spent on CASA yields $23 in savings in the foster care and family court systems.
Last year, Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte Counties had 4,091 abused/neglected children under court protection but only enough volunteers to serve one-third of them. CASA’s goal is to provide a volunteer for every abused and neglected child in the system.
In addition to serving CASA children directly as an advocate, there are other ways to volunteer, including helping with the annual Light of Hope breakfast and Carnival for CASA fundraisers. The Heartland Men’s Chorus is scheduled to perform at the Wednesday, April 9, 2014, Light of Hope, the city’s largest breakfast event, at the Sheraton Crown Center.
Koger, who volunteered at the recent Carnival for CASA, says that to see the resiliency of abused and neglected children who now feel safe and to watch them enjoying a carefree day of fun is incredibly rewarding and reinforces the demonstrated impact that CASA volunteers make in the children’s lives.
“To see that kind of happiness and the love and support that those children are receiving in appropriate settings that they have been able to reach or stay in with CASA’s help, and to see what’s possible for children who come from a very disadvantaged place where — whether it’s neglect or actual outright abuse — to know that it’s possible for them to become those happy, smiling children running around Carnival, when you see it up close like that it has more of an impact. I understand that we all have other things to do in our lives, but when you can see the actual impact that something you’re doing has on the lives of children, that, to me, is what seals the deal.”
For more information about volunteering, visit www.casakc.org, call Jackson County CASA at 816-984-8204, or stop by their booth Oct. 4-5 at the “Out in the Crossroads” festival.
Lauren Fasbinder, president of Fasbinder & Associates, provides public relations services to a wide variety of businesses and organizations, including Jackson County CASA.