INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - Hundreds of people will gather Wednesday for the largest fundraising breakfast in the Kansas City area.
At the center of the Light of Hope breakfast is Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). The breakfast raises money and recruits volunteers to be a part of the CASA program.
Only about one-third of the thousands of children in Jackson County who end up in the foster care system have a CASA volunteer working on their case.
“We know that the children who have a CASA volunteer will spend less time in the system and will be more likely to get the services they need,” said Martha Gershun, Executive Director of Jackson County CASA.
CASA volunteers are assigned a case and their primary focus is the child or children involved. They are required to visit the children at least once a month. They talk with foster parents, case workers, therapists, doctors, teachers and anyone else involved in the children's lives. The goal is to know everything about the children so the volunteer can give them a voice in court and to fight for what’s best for the kids.
“I believe absolutely that we have CASA volunteers who have saved children's lives," said Gershun. “They have alerted the judge to dangerous situations that need to be fixed immediately and they have found homes for children when there was no one to adopt them.”
Molly Bolton was only 3-years-old when she came into care. Her mother was unable to care for her and her medical needs for cerebral palsy. As a child with special needs, Molly had some extra challenges to overcome when it came to finding a permanent home.
“There are a lot of people who don't want to take that role on because they don't think they can handle it,” said Jason Bolton, Molly’s adoptive father. “I think people would be surprised by what they can do for children.”
Fortunately, Molly was assigned CASA volunteer Margie Carder almost immediately. While Molly moved from foster home to foster home, as is often the case with these children, Carder was a constant in Molly’s life, reassuring her that she had someone in her corner.
“She visited Molly faithfully, every month,” said Stephanie Bolton, Molly’s adoptive mother.
When Molly entered Stephanie Bolton’s special education class, it was Carder who saw a family who could care for and love Molly and provide her with a safe permanent home.
“We had done some foster care in the past and we knew that eventually we would adopt, always thinking it would be when our biological children were a little bit older,” said Stephanie. “But Molly just had a personality that we knew would fit perfectly in our family.”
Their process began with a home study in October 2012. That process was completed in December. With Carder advocating for the move, Molly began regular visits with the Boltons in January 2013. She moved in with the family six to eight weeks later. And in November of 2013, Molly, who is now 7-years-old, became a permanent member of the Bolton family, fitting right in with her three new younger siblings.
“She's our oldest child and, in a way, she just watches over them as much as we do,” Jason said. “I think it would be so different if we didn't have her in our lives.”
The Boltons live in Independence, an area of the Kansas City metro that sees a lot of foster care cases. Unfortunately, not as many volunteers live in Eastern Jackson County.
“Twenty-five percent of the children that Jackson Co serves are in Eastern Jackson County, but it's a very small percentage of our volunteers,” said Gershun.
Gershun said the hours required to be a CASA are flexible. Volunteers can visit the children on weekends or in the evenings, even on their lunch break when the children are in school. While they encourage volunteers to attend court hearings, it is not required. The most important part of a CASA volunteer’s job is to see the children and ensure their safety and well-being.
“One of the things we hear most from our children is, ‘I've been abandoned, I've been forgotten, nobody cares,’” said Gershun. “When CASA volunteers visit them on a regular basis, they know one person who absolutely cares about their well-being and their job is to represent their best interests. It can make all the difference in the world for a child's self-esteem and their sense of safety.”
To learn more about Jackson County CASA, how you can help, or become a volunteer, visit http://www.jacksoncountycasa-mo.org/