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Ahead of theatrical fundraiser event, CASA director discusses organization’s purpose

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So far this year, volunteers with the 37th Judicial Circuit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association have advocated for 45 child victims of abuse and neglect in Howell County alone.

“Unfortunately, as we grow our volunteer ranks, the number of child victims in state care in our four-county circuit — Carter, Howell, Oregon and Shannon — has risen dramatically; from around 100 in 2016, to over 300 in 2022,” says Connie Pendergrass, executive direct of 37th Judicial CASA. The nonprofit organization exist to support and promote court-appointed advocates, volunteers who work with the court system on behalf of abused and neglected children.

The children who are served by CASA have been placed into the state foster system for many reasons, but normally due to child abuse and neglect. Pendergrass said a majority of the cases have a former caregiver experiencing drug-related issues as well. Some children will be placed at a relative’s home, some with a foster family, and those with special mental and emotional issues may be placed in a residential facility, according to Pendergrass. 

As CASA prepares to host a murder mystery dinner theater event in September to raise funds to support the organizations mission to aid children who’ve been neglected and abused, Pendergrass answered questions about how the organization has grown, challenges CASA has faced in the past year and what motivates her to want to help local children. 

Can you tell community members a little about your organization as well as the growth CASA has been experiencing? CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASAs are volunteer advocates who speak up for abused and neglected children, who are in the foster care system. A CASA will typically work with one child or sibling group to ensure that their needs are being met while under the court’s jurisdiction. The goal is to provide a safe, permanent home, and the CASA Volunteer is a voice for the child in the court system.

The mission of the 37th Judicial Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children’s is to recruit, train and support volunteers to advocate for every abused or neglected child in State care in the 37th Circuit, so they can be safe, have a permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.

The 37th Judicial CASA is located at 101 Washington Ave., West Plains, and represents the four counties of Carter, Howell, Oregon and Shannon. All of our work is coordinated from a small office in the lower level of an office building on the Court Square. We maintain a comfortable lounge area with a couch and a couple of chairs, books and games for children of all ages and additional resources for families and caregivers. Our office hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and other hours are available upon request.

We invite any individual who is interested to stop by or give us a call at 417-255-2100.

 

What challenges has CASA faced in the past year? The pandemic did affect our ability to actively have face-to-face contact with the children we serve. Our advocates continued to have contact via phone, texts, face time and Zoom. Recruiting new CASA volunteers is a challenge faced every year.

 

How has CASA overcome the challenges? After COVID restrictions were removed we were able to resume our face-to-face contacts with our children on a regular basis. We have increased our visibility throughout our circuit through presentations to other organizations, informational booths, our website, our Facebook page, newspaper articles, billboards, radio and word-of-mouth through both our current advocates and supporters. Through our efforts we have recruited, trained, and eight new CASA volunteers were appointed and sworn into service by Presiding Judge Steven Privette. It is our goal to continue to add to our number — there are many children waiting and in need.

 

Could you tell community members about your role as executive director of CASA?       Duties for the executive director include managing the agency’s assets, grantwriting and maintenance, providing leadership to all staff, establishing business goals, ensuring tax compliance, overseeing daily operations and executing any and all CASA projects.

I aid and promote the 37th Judicial CASA’s mission and objectives by maintaining positive relationships with internal and external stakeholders, achieving organizational goals and maintaining sound financial practices.

The executive director carries the primary responsibility for leading the organization towards the goal of advocacy for each child in state custody in our four-county circuit of Carter, Howell, Oregon and Shannon for whom a judge requests a volunteer advocate.

The executive director reports to and is accountable to a CASA Board of Directors. The executive director works with the board to set strategies for CASA and implements plans to ensure the mission of our agency is fulfilled and in compliance with the National CASA standards and regulations.

 

What led you to want to help foster children? I am a retired teacher and school administrator who spent many years working with, and advocating for, special-needs children within the community. I have been working as a volunteer advocate with CASA since early 2019, and continue to have cases. I feel this gives me the unique opportunity to see how the system works from both sides.

When given the opportunity to be appointed executive director, my goal was and continues to be to increase the visibility of CASA as an organization and emphasize the need for trained volunteers. These caring and dedicated individuals are a consistent voice for children in care. 

In Missouri there are an estimated 1,600 dedicated volunteers advocating for thousands of children and 32 of these advocates volunteer right here in our community, but we need more.

 

Is there an inspiring story you have recently experienced in your role at CASA that you could share with readers? This is a story we all share and it’s such a heartwarming reminder that we do make a difference in the lives of our kiddos. This was written by a teen who has chosen to remain in the foster care system until the age of 21. Their name is being withheld to maintain confidentiality:

“The CASA program has been a massive help in my life. It’s a great program with people who genuinely care about our benefit. I was 14 when I met my CASA Advocate. I lived at Fair Haven Children’s Home and didn’t really have anyone that I felt genuinely cared about me. I had been in and out of foster homes and group homes for a few years. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to who’d actually listen. She helped me in many ways, but a huge part was just that she honestly cared, and she was always there if I needed to talk. 

After Fairhaven I was taken to Lakeland Behavioral Health Hospital where I didn’t have anyone, and life was just difficult. The other girls weren’t people I could be friends with and couldn’t confide with them about how I was feeling. Anytime my CASA would call me or visit me it always brightened my day and even my week. There was a time where Lakeland had no shampoo or conditioner, and my CASA made a visit just so she could bring me some. She has always been an amazing person and I don’t know where I’d be without her.

I finally found my forever family after being moved around a lot. I had been through many caseworkers, but my CASA was always there through it all. She was there when I started high school and was there to see me graduate. She has been with me through some of the most difficult times and some of the happiest times. My CASA is here helping me with all of the big steps in life. She helped me apply for my first job. The CASA program is amazing and is something us foster children really need. They hear us when others don’t which is something that is really needed in youth. I hope this program continues to get funded and supported because everyone deserves a CASA worker who’s going to be there for them when no one else will be.”

 

Regarding legislation and funding, are there any laws or regulations that you think legislators should pass to help the area's foster children? During this last legislative session, the Missouri legislators voted and approved an increase in state appropriation to MOCASA which Gov. Mike Parson signed. MOCASA passes through much of this funding as grants for new and existing CASA programs. 

Any suggestions that I have would properly go to MOCASA, and they would consider how to advocate for any changes.

 

8) How many staff members and volunteers do you currently have?  Currently, we have one program coordinator, Kathleen Wolf, licensed clinical social worker; one volunteer coordinator, Shari Perkins, master of science in criminal justice, and myself, Connie Pendergrass, specialist in education. We have 32 volunteer advocates who are serving 45 children at this time. 

 

9) Are there any recognition activities CASA has resumed? Recognition activities includes annual recognition dinners which recognize our staff and community partners; holiday get-togethers at the office; and appreciation and team building picnics at the home of one of our board members. Volunteers are given anniversary, thank-you, and other event greeting cards signed by board members and the circuit judge. They are also given an official CASA binder, pens, shirts with our logo and other items commemorating their excellent work.

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