Local Children’s Group Foresees Greater Need in 2022 Under New Illinois Law. Can You Help?

Barbara Szul

CASA of McHenry County, a volunteer group that advocates for abused and neglected children in the juvenile court system, will hold its inaugural town hall meeting Tuesday as it anticipates a daunting increase in the number of children to be served.

According to CASA Executive Director Becky Morris, there are several reasons for organizing the town hall (7-8:30 p.m. Jan. 25, Philanthropy Center/The Community Foundation for McHenry County, 33 E. Woodstock St., Crystal Lake).

“We want to raise awareness about the needs of foster children in our community,” she said, explaining that CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. She also notes that everyone in the community can attend—from donors to volunteers and interested community members.

Other reasons for the meeting include “a large recruitment need” and a need for “financial donations,” Morris said. The urgency stems from an anticipated increase in the number of local foster children the agency expects to serve in the upcoming year.

“We served 183 children in 2021,” Morris said. “We expect that number to rise to close to 250 in 2022.”

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An amendment to the Illinois Juvenile Court Act increases CASA of McHenry County's need for volunteers.Courtesy of CASA of McHenry County

That roughly 37 percent increase arises from a word change recently made in the Juvenile Court Act of 1987. Rather than “The court may appoint a special advocate,” the law now reads “The court shall appoint...” The amendment took effect on Jan. 1.

“Before Judge Christopher Harmon would appoint a CASA to only the most egregious cases,” said Sharie Dodge, the group’s advocate engagement manager. “In anticipation of the new law, he started making special-advocate appointments for most kids in our local court system last month. We already have 30 new cases.”

CASA, which serves infants through teens, is a national organization that was started in 1977 by Seattle Judge David Soukup. He was concerned that the courts were making life-changing decisions about abused and neglected children with little to no detailed information. He came up with the idea that children in the foster-care system would benefit from highly trained volunteers advocating for them in court. Today, there are more than 900 CASA programs nationwide with 54,000 volunteers serving more than 250,000 abused and neglected children annually.

The McHenry County chapter debuted in 2005 and staff there have been working diligently so that they will meet the challenge that the new law brings—especially the need for more special advocates. Dodge said at this time they currently are meeting the new demand but realize more cases are coming.

“We would rather have CASAs waiting for a case than a child waiting for a CASA,” Dodge said.

Each year, there are more than 2,000 reports of child abuse and neglect in McHenry County, according to the group’s website. About “10 to 12 percent” of those cases wind up in the foster-care system, Dodge said.

“We are grateful for the new law,” Dodge added. “Every kid in the court system deserves a CASA. They need someone helping. They are kids.”

Helping beyond the courtroom

Following are abbreviated accounts, based on CASA McHenry County materials, of how special advocates have helped beyond the courtroom:

  • Gave voice to a girl’s mental health needs during a DCFS administrative review. The advocate had been volunteering on the girl’s case for about three years, realizing during the review that although DCFS caseworkers came and went, she was the only consistent adult in the child’s life and the only one who knew her full history.
  • Used his coaching skills to help a 10-year-old foster child become more open and comfortable. When the CASA showed up at the foster home with a baseball and glove, he realized the child, who had endured much, had never played catch before. The simple game brought about a big change in the child/CASA relationship.
  • Listened to stories, asked questions, and pushed swings on a playground while visiting with four children whose case had been assigned to her. It was the advocate’s first case and her first meeting with the children. As they laughed and played, she realized that though the youngsters had been through a lot, they were still just kids.

Registration required

Attendees of Tuesday’s town hall meeting can expect to meet the staff and board leadership, hear about the agency’s impact in 2021, its vision for 2022 and ways the local community can help. A question-and-answer session with Morris, Board President Holly Hawes and others will conclude the meeting.

You can attend in person or virtually. Follow here for a registration form: https://bit.ly/3IjOVDy

Volunteer. Change a child’s life

Rigorous training allows CASA volunteers to become the second set of eyes and ears that a judge frequently needs. To that end, CASA of McHenry County will hold informational sessions that explore the advocate’s role. Prospective volunteers can attend the following sessions:

  • 10-11 a.m. Jan. 22; CASA headquarters, 630 N. IL Rt. 31, Crystal Lake. RSVPs to sharie@casamchenrycounty.org are appreciated but not required.
  • 7-8 p.m. Feb. 23; Cary Library, 1606 Three Oaks Rd, Cary, IL. Registration required. Call the library at 847-639-4210 or go to their registration form: https://bit.ly/3FMEias
  • 6:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 15; Virtual via Zoom. Email sharie@casamchenrycounty.org to register and receive a Zoom link.
  • 12:30-1:30 p.m. March 8; Woodstock Public Library; 414 W. Judd St., Woodstock, IL. RSVPs to sharie@casamchenrycounty.org are appreciated but not required.

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This nonprofit highlight was presented by Not-for-Profit Resources, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping build awareness of local nonprofit organizations’ needs and providing resources to help them grow stronger. To learn more, go to www.nfpresources.org.

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