You Just Need a Heart for Helping Kids

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Photo by Jennifer Bhargava

 

When a child is placed in foster care, due to abuse and neglect, it can be a very confusing and frightening time in their life. Sometimes they’re shifted from family to family, school to school. In the span of a couple years, they could have up to five or six case workers.

In the midst of inconsistency, some children have one stable person in their life: a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

This person volunteers their time to make sure the court system has each child’s best interest at heart.

They work hand-in-hand with case workers. They meet with teachers, therapists, doctors, and other important adults in their young charge’s life, to determine the child’s long-term and short-term needs.

They report everything to the judge working on the case.

They offer a glimmer of hope to children who need it the most.

One of those volunteers from CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties is Cathy Matlack, of Shawnee.

At the Promise of Hope luncheon in Overland Park next week, Matlack will speak to approximately 900 people about her experience with the agency.

Matlack started volunteering for CASA six years ago, after hearing about it from a friend.

With her own children grown, she was looking for more in-depth volunteer opportunities where she could directly impact people’s lives.

With CASA, she couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Since 2011, she has served 17 kids; seven families total.

She’s advocated for all ages, from infants to teenagers.

With each case she’s handled, she’s learned more about the complexities of the court system and she’s established life-changing bonds with kids she never would have met otherwise.

“With teens, you have the opportunity to be a mentor and a role model,” Matlack told the Dispatch. “With children, when you walk through the door, they run to you with open arms.”

Her favorite part about the job is seeing a happy ending.

“I love seeing the adults in their life genuinely make a positive change,” she said. “It’s important for all children to have a stable and safe childhood.”

The job has its emotional turns, however.

“In some cases, siblings have the potential of being separated and that is heartbreaking to me,” she said. “That sibling bond is often the one unbroken thing those kids have during a very traumatizing time.”

Matlack’s dedication to serving children in both counties hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Susi Hogsett-Duncan, the adoptive mother of the children for whom Matlack advocated on her last case, considers the amiable volunteer a blessing in her family’s life.

“Without my faith in God, this experience would have been unbearable,” Hogsett-Duncan. “God knew that we needed Cathy in our lives. She was a gift to us.

I cannot even imagine what this arduous, challenging, emotional journey would have been like without Cathy walking with us every single step of the way. Her commitment and dedication expanded far beyond what I ever imagined.”

The adoptive mother believes every child deserves to have an advocate walk beside them during uncertain times.

She was astounded to recently learn that for every four children in foster care in both Johnson and Wyandotte Counties, only one is given a CASA volunteer.

“Every child needs that one person that will be a constant in the most frightening, darkest days of their lives when they have lost everything,” Hogsett-Duncan said. “We need more CASA’s, these amazing individuals that make such huge commitments to these children from the beginning to the end. Someone that is consistent and present and most importantly, someone that each child knows is truly speaking and acting on their behalf.”

CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties would love to help more children, it just needs more volunteers to fit that need.

Last year, 211 CASA volunteers served abused and neglected children in both counties. But the number of children in abuse and neglect cases in Kansas continues to spiral upward.

In fact, CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties Executive Director Amy Boydston pointed out that each month, around 120 children are put on a waiting list for a CASA volunteer.

Volunteering for CASA is fairly simple. Volunteers are not required to have special degrees or preexisting knowledge of the court system.

“You just need a heart for helping kids,” said Boydston.

Hours for volunteers are flexible, with many CASA volunteers holding full-time jobs.

Potential volunteers are screened and are required to complete 30 hours of pre-service training, both in-class and online.

Each advocate is supervised by a staff person.

If anyone is interested in learning more about CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties or becoming a volunteer advocate, there are many ways to do so.

The Promise of Hope Luncheon, a free event, will be held from noon to 1 p.m. on March 30 at the Ritz Charles, 9000 W. 137th St., Overland Park.

The luncheon will provide details about the agency, plus feature guest spakers, such as Matlack.

Donations to the agency will be accepted.

To reserve a free space, visit casajwc.org or call 913-715-4034. Registration is required.

CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties is also holding an informational session from noon to 1 p.m. on April 13 at its headquarters, 5700 Broadmoor St., Suite 201, Mission.

With more volunteers, the agency will be able to serve more children, emphasized Boydston, a Shawnee native.

She wants people to know one thing: children assigned a CASA volunteer are far less likely to be re-abused and far more likely to find a safe, permanent home.

After all, that is the goal that matters.

 

Written by Jennifer Bhargava

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