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CASA sends children out of court, into homes

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
(Ruthie Hauge for Shaw Media)
CASA Advocate Manager Jorie Siemens of Island Lake walks behind volunteers Angie Harris of Algonquin, Whit Sears of Woodstock, Iris Douglas of Huntley and Frank Doud of McHenry as they make their way Friday from the McHenry County Courthouse to the prison for fingerprinting during Court Appointed Special Advocate training in Woodstock.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Retirement bored Evey Davis, so she decided to create happy endings for the children she knew needed it most.

Davis, a former special education teaching assistant in District 200, saw firsthand the difficulties foster children had adjusting to school and making friends. And all too often, once those friendships were made, the student would just not show up one day and Davis knew it was because the student had gone on to another foster home.

Now a Court Appointed Special Advocate, Davis has spent more than four years helping abused and neglected children find permanent living situations by acting as a voice for those children in court proceedings.

Whether it is stopping a run of five different foster homes for a child or watching a 15-month-old boy finally be adopted by loving grandparents by the time he turned 4, Davis said her volunteer work with the McHenry County CASA has provided some of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

“I know I’ve helped make a big difference in these children’s lives,” she said. “Without [CASA volunteers], judges would never know the full picture of what is going on in the child’s life.”

CASA volunteers assist in court proceedings involving abused and neglected children by visiting the child, speaking with caretakers, teachers and social workers to file reports to judges that give a full picture of the situation.

Volunteers could spend months or years with the same child – spending at least 10 hours a month on the case – until permanent residency is reached.

CASA has served McHenry County since 2005, taking on a larger role each year. The organization assisted 50 children in its first year and now helps 150 annually.

Kelly Pokharel, executive director for the organization, said the number of abused and neglected children in the McHenry County court system increases each year, and CASA fails to reach about 100 of the total 250 each year. She said if the organization could double its volunteer courses from 15 attendees to 30, CASA would be able to serve all children within five to six years.

“Child abuse and neglect is something people don’t talk about because it happens behind closed doors,” Pokharel said. “But these volunteers are really here out of the goodness of their hearts and take a lot of time to get to know the child and what they need and want.”

The time commitment can be significant, Davis said, as volunteers are expected to dedicate at least 10 hours each month to their child, including spending time visiting the child and talking to caretakers, teachers and siblings.

Davis said she has visited some of her past children up to once a week, which helps break the ice between caretakers who can be hesitant. No person involved in the child’s life can read the reports the CASA volunteer files to the judge.

“At first it’s always a little awkward,” Davis said of meeting a family. “But after a while, they become very comfortable with you there observing.”

Volunteers do not need any special skill or background because everyone must first go through at least 30 hours of training and pass a background test.

Frank Doud, a software engineer from McHenry, is going through that process now.

Doud was a CASA volunteer in Lake County before coming to McHenry, and while the programs are similar, he said the training course has served as a valuable refresher. He also has helped some of the first-time trainees feel more at ease.

“You can tell everyone is very eager to participate and they all have a commitment to helping children,” Doud said. “As long as you have that desire to help children, anyone can do this.”

For those interested in helping CASA, a volunteer training course is scheduled to start in November and run on the weekends for the first time to make it more convenient, Pokharel said. Those unable to commit the time can still help as soon as Sept. 21 by attending the CASA Cup Night at the Races event at Turnberry Country Club.

Jason Sterwerf, an advocate manager for CASA who oversees volunteers, said fundraising events such as Night at the Races continue to help get the organization’s name and mission out to the community.

“I think people understand the volunteer piece and financial piece, but they are surprised when they hear what all goes into what we do,” Sterwerf said. “But we have been growing.”

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