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McLean County doesn't have enough volunteers to help kids in foster care

Children getting onto a school bus

A program that trains community members to advocate for children in the foster care system is coming up short on volunteers.

The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program of McLean County currently only has enough volunteers to serve around half of children in need. Eric Hansen, who recruits and trains volunteers for the program, said the pandemic is largely to blame.

“COVID has driven volunteerism across every sector,” Hansen said. But that shortage is acutely felt in the CASA program, where volunteers act “as the eyes and ears” of the court in cases of juvenile abuse or neglect, according to Hansen.

“They are the ones who get to know the foster parents, (biological) parents, teachers, therapists, caseworkers — anybody that's going to be involved in a child's life in foster care,” said Hansen of CASA volunteers. But whereas therapists and caseworkers are responsible for managing several cases at a time, CASAs are only responsible for one child. Hansen said that kind of individual attention is proven to make a significant difference in the child’s outcome.

Children in foster care without a court-appointed advocate tend to languish in the system, according to Hansen.

“But when a CASA is on a case, that case, on average, is reduced by six to seven months,” he explained, citing data gathered through CASA Illinois and DCFS.

Hansen acknowledges that helping a child navigate the foster care system is a commitment of “emotional labor.” But he says it’s magnitude of that commitment that makes all the difference for the child.

“We hope and we want the volunteers to develop those attachments and really be consistent and caring adults in that child's life,” Hansen said. “Oftentimes, CASAs are the only consistent and caring adult in a child's life.”

As for the amount of time a volunteer can expect to commit, Hansen said it varies. Sometimes it’s as little as 5 to 10 hours a month, often spent visiting with the child.

“The biggest commitment is the upfront training,” Hansen said, which takes about 30 hours over the course of a month.

Hansen said he’s hopeful that as volunteerism begins to rebound following the pandemic, people will consider donating their time to CASA. “Every child deserves an advocate,” he said.

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