May 13, 2021

Iowa Child Advocacy Board restarts CASA program in southwest Iowa

Since 1983, April has been recognized as national Child Abuse Awareness Month, a time when the Iowa Child Advocacy Board reaches out to build public consciousness of Court-Appointed Special Advocates, CASAs are volunteers who devote time aside from their main professions to make life better for a neglected or abused child. Their backgrounds can range from teachers to bankers to construction workers.

Children who are served by CASAs are taken under the court system and the Iowa Department of Human Services after their homes are proven to be fraught with substance abuse, mental health issues or incarceration. According to the Iowa Child Advocacy Board, there over 11,460 abused or neglected children in Iowa as of 2019, costing the state nearly $230 million. Over 500 CASA volunteers served 1,340 children, which alleviates almost $1.75 million of that expense.

Jennifer Mercer, Coordinator of the Iowa Child Advocacy Board, says the only qualifications to be a CASA are being at least 19 years of age, flexible and compassionate. The applicant must go through a background check and 30 hours of training before they serve. CASAs are then appointed to one case by a judge, which is a marked difference from social workers, who typically cover 45 to 60 cases. The program permits an advocate devote attention to one child or sibling group.

However, the CASA program’s state of operations has not gone smoothly in recent years.

“In Union County, we’re just starting the program back up after it was shut down due to budget cuts about eight years ago,” Mercer said.

She added that at the time the CASA program underwent massive state-wide budget cuts, she was moved further away from rural communities.

“At that time I was moved to Polk County,” Mercer said, “But now we’re able to start expanding again.”

Despite this expansion, there are still very few CASAs in southwest Iowa. Currently, there are now programs in Union and Clarke counties.

Realtor Jamie Adkins was sworn in as a CASA for Madison County 9 p.m. Thursday at the Madison County Court House, which makes Adkins the only CASA in Madison County. Adkins wanted to volunteer her time given the flexibility in her schedule and the opportunity to give her attention to one case.

“I’ve always been completely passionate about helping kids and families and things like that,” Adkins said, “And I had been wanting to volunteer and do something that would make a difference for a long time and this was kind of the right place and right time and I’ve liked it so far.”

Mercer said that the CASA program has been reaching out to community newspapers and hanging flyers to raise awareness about the program’s expansion. The outreach has proven necessary as Adkins heard about the CASA program through word-of-mouth.

“I never heard of this before,” Adkins said, “And so I was just like, ‘How can I volunteer? What can I do?’” she said. “I had a friend that was like, ‘Jamie, you really need to look into this CASA program,’ So I did ... .”

Prior to learning about the CASA program, Adkins had looked into volunteering for shelters, but the opportunities were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adkins also volunteered because of how few CASAs there are and what she sees in the job.

Adkins said, “Really? I just have to present to the judge what I think is best for the child? Like, I can do that, and I think anybody who has a passion for kids and just their community, I can’t think of a better way to volunteer.”

To learn more about the CASA program and the Iowa Child Advocacy Board, visit childadvocacy.iowa.gov.