Area residents with a calling for social work have an opportunity awaiting them with Spirit of the Plains CASA in Garden City, an organization that advocates for abused and neglected children traveling through the Kansas court and foster care systems.

Becky Clark, executive director of the local CASA branch servicing children in Kansas’ 25th Judicial District, is calling on people with big hearts to get involved as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Clark has helmed the operation since Aug. 14. Under her leadership, the organization has redirected its focus on volunteer recruitment and retention efforts.

A licensed social worker with 20 years of experience in public education, Clark is no stranger to the game and is positioned to receive her master’s degree in social work in May from the University of Kansas. She hopes to use that added expertise to strengthen CASA in southwest Kansas for the sake of children caught up in a fraught Kansas foster care system in which 74 children were reported missing in October.

CASA reports that there are about 6,900 children in the custody of the Kansas Department of Children and Families amid a shortage of foster homes and high staff turnover. As an answer to that, CASA tasks itself with finding people willing to help.

“We are the voice for the children in the court system who are abused and neglected,” Clark said. “Many times, without our services, the children’s voice would not be presented to a judge.”

During a Rotary Club luncheon on Wednesday, at which Clark was the guest speaker, Finney County Magistrate Judge Christopher Sanders said CASA volunteers act as his eyes and ears when making decisions in child-in-need-of-care cases.

Clark said Sanders called on volunteers to write their court reports “as though a child’s life depends on it, because it could.”

There are 23 CASA programs serving 71 counties in Kansas. The first CASA program in Kansas started in 1981 in Wichita. In 1986, the Kansas Supreme Court created program standards and guidelines for every CASA program to follow in order to meet certification.

CASA volunteers are also held to a standard. Every volunteer is required to pass local, state and national background checks. While most CASA volunteers already have full-time jobs, anyone can become a CASA volunteer and no pre-existing special education credentials are required.

Clark explained that each volunteer is assigned a case with a child. Volunteers meet with their kids, compile court reports filed a few weeks before hearings and include information that attorneys and judges may not otherwise know, including details about their education, placement, health concerns, hobbies, and any problems that may have been identified along the way.

Volunteers are required to meet with their kids at least once a month, but Clark says volunteers often do much more.

Whether it’s a trip to the zoo, the movies or a restaurant, Clark says it’s important for volunteers to spend time with their kids and build a relationship.

“Our biggest thing is to build a relationship with that kid because we are the one consistent thing in their life all the way through the court system,” Clark said. “Social workers might change, case managers might change, but their CASA volunteer will stay the same. That’s one thing we ask is if somebody starts a case that they go all the way through and finish it.”

CASA is currently serving 49 children in the 25th Judicial District, which includes Greeley, Wichita, Scott, Hamilton, Kearny and Finney counties. Last year, the agency served 75 children.

“We are in desperate need of volunteers,” Clark said, adding that volunteer work with CASA is a “big commitment” that requires 30 hours of training specific to the program. However, the training protocol has changed over time, and prospective volunteers can complete part of the process online. Once everything is complete, the Office of Judicial Administration determines who is eligible to work with the children.

Clark says CASA currently has 14 volunteers, having just trained a class of eight that graduated in January. But even with those 14, “We definitely don’t have enough to cover our vast area,” she said. “So we are in desperate need of anyone who has a heart for making a difference with a kid.”

The next training cohort will be held in the spring.

Work is unpaid, and Clark described the job as “one of the hardest” volunteers will ever have. Still, she said, it’s also “one of the most rewarding,” she said. After all, CASA reports that their children spend less time in the foster care system on a national level, which puts them at less risk to fall through the cracks. They’re reported to find permanent families more quickly and move on to adoption more quickly if their original families are unable to reintegrate.

And if anything happens to the kids — if CASA volunteers suddenly can’t account for them — the program begins tracking them right away.

Between Clark and CASA’s volunteer manager, the southwest Kansas branch only has two full-time staff members charged with applying for grants, managing up to 30 volunteers and safeguarding as many kids in need as possible. But despite the hard work involved, Clark says they’ll do what it takes to keep volunteers invested.

“We’re not just about recruiting volunteers,” Clark said. “We’re really into the business right now of retention, so we want to make sure our volunteers have a good experience and we offer them all the support they need to do the best job that they can on behalf of their kids.”

CASA isn’t without difficulties. A lack of volunteers is also coupled with a gradual decrease in funding, Clark said. The organization is funded through grants and private donations. It’s also the recipient of several community trusts. With five months leading the organization, Clark says she doesn’t understand why funding is going away, but it’s been dwindling over the last three years.

But even with less funding, Clark is powering through, and she’s calling on others with a big heart to help.

“If anybody has a heart for giving back to the community and really, really making a difference with some of our most vulnerable citizens, this would be a great volunteer opportunity for them, and we would just encourage them and welcome them with open arms to contact us,” Clark said.

Those interested in volunteering can contact CASA at (620) 271-6197.

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.