There are 66 Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) who volunteer in Cole County juvenile courts — and they're well appreciated.
Capital City CASA held a reception Thursday night to show its gratitude for the work they do at Canterbury Hill Winery, at 1707 S. Summit Drive, in Holts Summit.
The recognition is for volunteers like Peggy Smart, who has been a CASA for about six years, said Gina Clement, executive director of Capital City CASA. Smart is working on a case that has been ongoing for three years, and involves children whose ages are now 3, 6 and 7. Or, Paul Cordia, who has been a CASA for eight years. His current case started in 2017, and the family he deals with has added two babies since it started.
The organization has crossed a milestone. Since its first case in 2011, the organization has now served more than 500 children.
"This gives us an opportunity to thank volunteers for all their hard work and dedication," Clement said during the evening event.
Those attending the event included numerous CASAs, board members and supporters. Olive, the Cole County Courtroom therapy dog, sat quietly through the program, with her handler, CASA volunteer Lisa Bax.
Brandon McMillan, the host of the Emmy-winning CBS show "Lucky Dog," rescued the tiny poodle-mix, trained her and gave her to the program.
He returned to Jefferson City this summer to film another episode of the show. That episode will air Nov. 23.
Olive serves as a CASA for Cole County Court.
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CASA is a volunteer-powered network of people from all walks of life who believe society has a fundamental obligation to make sure children thrive, are treated with dignity and are kept safe. Its volunteers, appointed by judges, watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. They try to make certain the children don't get lost in overburdened legal and social service systems or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. The volunteers remain on their clients' cases until the children are placed in safe and permanent homes.
Cordia regularly works with a family who has received four children — all younger than 3 — who have been removed from their parents. A pair of twins who each have cerebral palsy — a condition marked by impaired muscle coordination and other disabilities, typically caused by brain damage done before or at birth.
A 1-year-old in the family also has signs of cerebral palsy, Cordia said. However, the new parents have adopted the children, and others with disabilities.
"Whether Paul is advocating for little ones with medical issues or youth, he's been a strong, steady role model," Clement said. "He's given all the children just what they need."
Cordia said he spent 32 years with the Highway Patrol. He retired about three years ago. That's when he really threw himself into the CASA work.
That time as a trooper prepared him to deal with anything he encounters as a CASA, Cordia said. The job isn't that much different from the police work. He does investigations, writes reports and goes to court.
However, now he does it for children.
"These kids with special needs are part of my life," Cordia said. "I'm going to be part of their lives as long as they let me."
From the beginning of the Capital City CASA program, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem has been involved.
Melva Deane Lipsey got Beetem — and the entire county — involved with CASA.
Years ago, Lipsey's daughter and son-in-law filled out forms to be foster parents for a girl (they already had boys). Then, they got a call about a 2-day-old newborn in Kansas City, whose mother had abandoned her at the hospital. They leapt at the chance, but for 2 years, the birth mother came back into the picture and wanted custody, although she was on and off drugs, Lipsey said. Courts would give the birth mother custody, then rescind it when she went back on drugs. She heard about CASA and approached Beetem with the idea.
"Little did I think, when you first came into my courtroom, we would be where we are today," Beetem told Lipsey Thursday night as the organization recognized him for his contributions. "Not long ago, we didn't have the resources that we need."
Now, because of community support, CASA has the support it needs to accomplish goals.
However, it still doesn't get enough children into court, he said.
And, the organization is always looking for more volunteers. Capital City CASA seeks volunteers to become advocates for children in the court system. Volunteers must be 21 and submit to a background check. For more information, contact the office at 573-893-2272.
It always seems to need male CASAs.
A challenge, Clement said Thursday night, is finding CASAs who are capable of working with older children.
"We're going to do more targeted recruiting," she said. "We're going to look for people who can handle teens, try to recruit them and get them in."