More than 20 years ago, Mary Shuman heard some of the most shocking stories inside the Buchanan County Courthouse, fueling her volunteer mission as an advocate for a change.
“I had no idea people could do that to their children,” she said. “But this is why I do it, because I love children so much.”
After participating in a presentation at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., Ms. Shuman felt a desire to become a voice for young children often lost in courthouse turmoil in abuse and neglect cases. Acting as a volunteer advocate for CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children — while living in Leavenworth, Kan., she and her husband later moved to St. Joseph and she began her volunteer position with the Fifth Circuit CASA of Missouri.
“I am from a family that is very nice and calm ... but you get to see another side of life,” Ms. Shuman said. “You become aware that safety is the first issue for the children, but you realize that other people are coping the best they can, but someone needs to be a voice for children in some situations.”
The 5th Circuit CASA of Missouri is seeking volunteers to represent children brought into the court system for abuse and neglect cases. With only 29 active volunteers for 94 children in care in 2014, CASA Director Melisa Talbott said the need is growing, and the organization is seeking qualified volunteers to act as a supportive adult figure for children through individual court proceedings.
“That child has gone through enough changes in their life,” Ms. Talbott said. “We want to make sure that CASA is a constant person during their time in their case.”
Retired accountant Jim Hatton became a volunteer about four years ago when he saw neglected, troubled children in the court system.
“It seems like the need is even growing more and more, and to be an advocate for youngsters is rewarding and to give them the feeling that they are being heard,” Mr. Hatton said. “They should feel like they are getting to find the best options for themselves.”
Volunteers, 21 years old or older, represent any child under the age of 12, while teenage case files also are common. Prospective advocates must undergo background screenings, provide references, complete a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training, be available for court appearance with advance notice and commit to the program until the completion of their first case.
Each registered volunteer is required to spend between one and 10 hours a month per each juvenile and relay information to the juvenile judge for further consideration. Time commitment can range per case, but local CASA requirement policy requires at least one face-to-face visit per month at an approved site.
Mr. Hatton said stability and consistency is often something children lack in the court system. He said the time commitment is not overwhelming and it’s all worth it to help those who need it.
“You sometimes wonder how people can treat youngsters that way, and the abuse and neglect that can occur is just heartbreaking,” Mr. Patton said. “To be a part of trying to find a way to deal with this problem, there is a sense of reward that comes from being a part of this volunteer opportunity.”
Ms. Talbott said mentors are available for new volunteers during their first cases. She encouraged any interested volunteers to contact the CASA office at 901-1708 of visit www.mocasa.org for more information.