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Monday, March 19th, 2012
CASA volunteer is a voice for hurt, neglected children A mother to all 8:14 PM, Mar. 17, 2012 |
Written by Kathryn Wall
The children watched their mother die.
Her boyfriend shot her and then himself.
The kids, a little boy and girl, remained trapped in the house for at least an hour. No one knew what had happened.
When police did arrive, they had to coax the kids — 5 and 7 — from under the kitchen table.
“When they were found, they had blood on them — not their own,” Jodi Childress Bowman remembers.
She was the Court Appointed Special Advocate assigned to their case. It was her first with the volunteer organization.
“That one was just devastating,” she recalls.
It’s not that she thought any of the work would be cheerful. This just wasn’t what she had prepared herself for.
She knew it would be an emotional struggle. She knew she’d be helping kids who had been harmed. She knew it would rarely be a pretty picture.
But what these kids had gone through overwhelmed her.
CASA of Southwest Missouri served 232 kids in foster care in 2010 with 111 volunteers. Jodi just felt the pull.
It wasn’t any one thing, really. She had always been an active volunteer with Relay for Life and the United Way.
But the more she came in contact with people affiliated with CASA, the more interested she became in the opportunity to help child victims.
“I just felt a draw to it. I just needed to do it,” she explains.
As a child advocate, Jodi volunteers to help children who have been abused or neglected as the court process unfolds. She is the familiar face for children to talk to about anything – their foster home, their meals, their fears, their new clothes. Anything and everything they need to communicate. “ I’m their mom away from mom,” she explains.
Then she takes those conversations, her observations about their well-being and her knowledge of their needs, and goes to court hearings, team meetings and other conferences to make sure the child’s specific needs are being met. There’s at least a dozen other people in the process — attorneys, a judge, law enforcement, counselors, case workers — but the special advocate’s sole job is to be in that child’s corner.
Jodi is the voice for kids, she says, in a “system much larger than they are.” The average child advocate has one to two cases at time. Advocates talk with those kids at least twice a month, and are also an integral part of the court process. The responsibilities mean a significant time commitment.
So why does this wife, mother of three and full-time paralegal devote so much time to these children?
Her answer is simple: “They’re the voiceless.”
Children from newborns to 3 years of age made up 30 percent of children in foster care in Greene County in 2011. Kids ages 4 to 7 made up 23 percent of the children in foster care. Kids from 8 to 12 made up 20 percent.
That boy and girl found under the kitchen table hadn’t had what could be called a childhood.
These children had grown to become self-sufficient.
“He was the one who got food, made sure the doors were locked,” Jodi says, referring to the boy, then 7. “He was the parent.”
They were raised in a home where drugs were prevalent. The state Children’s Division had checked on the welfare of the kids often.
After their mother’s death, an aunt and uncle stepped in to take care of them. All of a sudden there was structure, rules, bed times. And there was this lady who visited every once in awhile to talk to them.
Jodi says her main job is to be fun.
“A lot of times I’ll just sit and play with them,” she says. “I’m the fun one. I want them to look forward to my visit.”
But the boy wanted nothing to do with Jodi for a long time. She was a stranger to him. He had nothing to say.
The girl was warm and affectionate from the beginning. She was young enough to be more trusting. Jodi depended on her to communicate both of the children’s needs. Eventually, near the end of Jodi’s time with them, the boy let his barrier down ever-so slightly.
He sat next to her.
“It was just like…” Jodi says, pausing to collect herself. Her voice wavers a bit as she goes on.
“He trusted me,” she says.
“Those kinds of things make it worth it.” _ In 2010, CASA of Southwest Missouri helped 92 children ages 0 to 5 years. Eighty children served by CASA were from 6 to 11 years old. Forty were 12 to 15 years old._
Jodi’s husband didn’t know at first why she had decided to volunteer for something that would take such an emotional toll.
“He’s a very encouraging person. But he just didn’t understand,” she said. Then he heard through the media about two small kids being found at a murder-suicide. He also heard about the grisly scene.
At the time the kids hadn’t been assigned an advocate and weren’t yet in foster care. He just heard the details and understood why these kids needed someone to look out for them.
He called his wife immediately.
“ ‘I get it now,’ he says. It just clicked with him,” Jodi says.
A few hours later, she was offered the case — involving the same kids her husband had heard about, the boy and girl found under the kitchen table.
“Can you tell me that’s not a meant-to-be situation?” she asks. _ Forty-six percent of cases of children in foster care in Greene County closed with reunificiation with birth parents in 2011. Thirty-five percent ended with adoption._
It’s been a few years since police found the boy and the girl under the kitchen table.
They’ve since been adopted and have adjusted well to their new lives, Jodi says. Referring to the kids’ biological mother, she says, “They don’t even call her mom anymore.”
“That’s how they’re moving on.”
Even though that case has closed for Jodi, she still keeps in contact with the family. She gets periodic email updates about what they’re doing in school, and keeps up with new photos.
Unlike authorities who have to maintain a certain amount of distance, Jodi gets to forge relationships with the kids she helps — something she says has enriched her life more than she would’ve thought.
“I would do anything for them. I would. OK, well, I won’t pay for their college,” she says, laughing.
_There were 506 children found to be neglected or abused in Greene County in 2010. CASA volunteers only had the resources that year to help 232.
CASA of Southwest Missouri doesn’t have enough volunteers to place one with each child. Instead, only the kids with the most egregious situations get a child advocate._
Jodi understands that not everyone can be an advocate like her. But she urges people to do something, even just a little thing, to help children in the community.
“You don’t have to be wealthy, don’t have to be a genius, don’t need a wealth of time,” Jodi says.
“You just have to care. These kids just need love.” It’s not about saving the world, she emphasizes. The little things — volunteering for an event, donating to a cause, helping with a fundraiser — mean a lot.
“There’s all kinds of ways to help. You just have to make a phone call,” she says.
“If you know you could save a kid even just a little pain, why wouldn’t you?”
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Springfield News-Leader’s Every Child public-service journalism project hopes to focus public attention on critical challenges facing children. A panel of community leaders and volunteers has been involved and is advising us.
As part of our special attention to child safety in the first quarter of this year, we’re talking to those in the trenches who are trying to protect, help or counsel children. Upcoming stories will focus on juvenile crime. In the second quarter, we’ll be looking at issues surrounding the health of children.
For previous stories and for more background, go to News-Leader.com/EveryChild.
How you can help DONATIONS Donations to CASA of Southwest Missouri Credit card by phone: 417-864-6202 Personal or business checks can be mailed to: CASA of Southwest Missouri PO Box 14364 Springfield, MO 65814 Donations can also be made through PayPal at: www.casaswmo.org VOLUNTEER Volunteers must have the following qualifications: are 21 years of age or older have completed a high school education or equivalent are willing to commit to an average of 10-15 hours per month for two to three years act as an independent investigator and represent the best interest of the child write and submit monthly summaries and activity log sheets and written reports to the court NOT convicted of a felony involving domestic violence or child abuse/neglect NOT a current employee of the Juvenile Justice Center OR Children’s Division (formerly known as DFS) OR a current foster care provider. Applications can be found at: http://www.casaswmo.org/Qualifications.aspx