Butler, Ripley counties' Court Appointed Special Advocates back from near death

Sunday, December 12, 2010

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- The home was unsanitary and unsafe. Both mom and dad were drug users reluctant to comply with court orders. Caught in the middle were their children.

It is abuse and neglect cases like this where Court Appointed Special Advocates become an invaluable tool as authorities try to determine how best to help. They serve as the eyes and ears of the court, but are the voice of the child.

CASA had almost disappeared from the 36th Judicial Circuit when it came under the direction of Butler County Community Resource Council nearly one year ago.

It now has 11 volunteers serving 48 of the most vulnerable children in Butler and Ripley counties.

"Many of these children have to deal with issues an adult would be incapable of handling," said CASA volunteer Yogi Rainbolt.

CASA brings another dimension to abuse and neglect cases, said Division II Judge John Bloodworth.

"When CASA is involved, we have three sides, the parent, juvenile division and very, very importantly, the child," Bloodworth said. "Before CASA, we didn't have the child's side unless they were in the courtroom.

"Not having CASA would be like running a race on crutches."

Children served by these volunteers spend 47 percent less time in foster care, their families receive more court-ordered services and those who are permanently removed are more likely to get adopted at a younger age, said Pamela Stephens, program director for CASA in the 36th Circuit.

"There are times when CASA workers have found new information that may not have been available before," Stephens said. "These are very dedicated, determined folks."

CASA advocates can only have two cases open at a time, and that limit is what helps make its volunteers so effective, according to Stephens.

Children's division workers have much larger case loads, said Craig Reed, 36th Judicial Circuit Children's Division circuit manager.

"CASA workers help us in the fact that we have another set of eyes and ears on the case," Reed said. "They also help in court because they may have thoughts or opinions no one else has thought of. They're basically an extension of the arm of the court."

The 36th Circuit's CASA program is part time, which means Stephens can oversee a maximum 15 volunteers.

She would like to see the program become full time, allowing the circuit to have 45 volunteers serving up to 150 children.

Rainbolt spent months working on behalf of the children of the couple addicted to drugs.

She interviewed each child's teachers, doctors, family members and anyone else who could help shed light on the situation.

"You talk to anyone you can to find the facts of the case," Rainbolt said. "You want to know the truth, because you can't help without the truth."

Most importantly, she listened to the children.

"Every child has a story to tell, and they need it to be heard," Rainbolt said.

All of this information was reported to the court, as it tried to determine if the parents' relationship should be permanently severed.

When the father was sent to prison, the children's mother stepped forward to do everything she could to bring her family back together.

"The children were reunited with their mother and it's great to see how well they're doing," said Rainbolt, who remains a friend of the family. "I like the idea of being able to help turn a troubled parent around, if that's possible."

"For every case we have, there is at least one other, and sometimes two more, that we could help with," said Stephens, who volunteered with the program before becoming director. "As advocates, we speak for what the child wants. Even if we don't think it's in their best interest, we still tell the judge. We are the eyes and ears of the court, but we are the voice of the child. That is where CASA is most powerful."

The 36th Circuit CASA has openings now for volunteers. Classes will start in January for anyone interested in becoming an advocate.

For more information, call Stephens at 573-778-7830.

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