Stepping Up for Neglected and Abused Children

By Beacon Staff

When children are removed from their homes because of neglect and abuse, their lives are often plunged into a cycle of uncertainty. Multiple foster homes, changing schools and alternating social workers may await them. If adults struggle to function without life stability, what can we expect from a child?

For more than a decade, CASA for Kids of Flathead County has sought to provide a measure of stability for these kids in crisis. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the advocates are tasked with a role that, at its most basic, is simply being there for a child who needs it.

In a childhood of shifting ground and absent role models, a regular meeting with a trained adult advocate can go a long ways. Jamie Campbell, executive director of CASA for Kids of Flathead County, said she knows a girl who has been with the same CASA volunteer from second through ninth grade, all while bouncing around group homes and foster care.

It’s nice to have something reliable in a world that’s been so unreliable.

“They need stability and most often they need hope,” Campbell said.

“It’s about finding things that the kids are interested in and finding ways we can help enhance their lives to give them hope so they can move from a place where they’re depressed and hopeless to a place where they can excel.”

The first CASA program was established in Washington in the late 1970s by a Seattle judge. Today there are around 1,000 CASA programs in 49 states, including 15 in Montana. In the late 1990s, District Judge Katherine Curtis spearheaded efforts to create a Flathead chapter. The chapter hired its first director in 2000.

Courts appoint CASA volunteers to children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect, meaning they are typically in some stage of foster care. The advocates must undergo 40 hours of training, plus additional ongoing training, and follow a national CASA curriculum.

They advocate for the kids in the community and in the courtroom. Last year, the local chapter worked with nearly 200 kids. It has 68 active trained advocates.

“It’s a big movement and it’s really about a child’s rights,” Campbell said. “Children have a right to a childhood. They have a right to grow up and not be abused.”

While the mission of Flathead’s CASA program to help kids has always been the same, its ability to execute and expand upon its mission recently got stronger with the creation of a fundraising foundation called Voices for CASA. The foundation was incorporated in November of 2011 and is awaiting its designation as a tax-exempt charitable organization.

With four employees working the equivalent of three full-time positions, Campbell said it’s difficult for the Flathead CASA chapter to conduct both fundraising efforts and run day-to-day affairs. Fundraising proceeds help recruit and train new volunteers, while supporting existing volunteers.

“We are a program of limited resources, so it’s wonderful to have these wonderful people come along and support us with their efforts,” Campbell said. “It allows us to focus on doing the work of advocating for the children.”

Voices for CASA organized a bike ride called Cycling for Children in late July that attracted 141 riders and raised more than $9,000. Cyclists of all ages participated in either a 40- or 70-mile ride beginning at Meadow Lake Resort and traveling along the Swan Range foothills. The ride will be an annual event.

“The community really got on board to support the efforts of CASA for Kids,” Jeannine Trousdale, one of the ride’s organizers, said.

The foundation is holding a fundraiser concert on Sept. 8 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center featuring Mike Eldred. An accomplished Broadway performer and recording artist, Eldred and his band will hold a tribute concert to John Denver. All proceeds benefit CASA.

Whether it’s baking cookies with a kid or coordinating an activity or raising money so a child can participate in school athletics, Campbell said CASA volunteers are there to offer a message of hope to these neglected and abused children:

“Tomorrow can be brighter and it doesn’t have to be like this. You didn’t create this. It’s not your fault. And you’re much more than this. Tomorrow can be brighter.”

CASA is taking applications to become an advocate, with training sessions beginning Sept. 13. There are 27 kids waiting for an advocate. For more information, visit www.flatheadcasa.org or call (406) 755-7208.

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