The county’s top child advocate would love to have enough volunteers so that every group of siblings in the court system could have their own champion in front of a judge.

But Tammi Hickman, director of the Johnson County Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, says she needs twice as many volunteers to serve all the kids in Johnson County who need advocacy in court. Volunteers, or special advocates, serve as guardians ad litem for children who have been taken out of their homes because of allegations of abuse or neglect.

Court-appointed special advocate volunteers work for kids who are wards of the state in the foster care system, ensuring their needs are met while their families’ cases are decided in court.

The nearly 30-year-old county program is serving more than 234 children with about 55 volunteers. Volunteers say they are needed in the majority of cases because the children’s parents are struggling with addiction.

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Johnson County kids in the system end up living in other parts of the state, sometimes separated from siblings because there aren’t enough local foster families.

No matter where they live though, Hickman’s team of volunteer advocates travels to where these kids live, get to know them and make sure they have what they need to be happy and productive in their new homes.

Volunteers report to family court judges on everything from parent visitation rights to medical needs or issues in school, such as bullying. In the courtroom, they make sure the judge knows about how happy the kids are in school, what they need to be successful and to feel healthy.

Hickman graduated six more volunteers from the CASA training program this spring, but about 50 more volunteers are needed. Volunteers need only be residents who can volunteer a few hours of their time a month, and who have no criminal background.

“I have to triage my cases. I do have more kids in care than I have volunteers available. I have to decide which ones need a CASA and which ones can go without. Having more to choose from would certainly be a huge help,” said Hickman, who has worked with the program for almost 19 years.

“I think that the huge benefit from having CASA is that volunteers can remain with that child and be the voice of that child — in court and out of court — or can see what their needs are from start to finish,” Hickman said.

In cases that involve the Department of Family Services, caseworker turnover is high, and caseworkers are trying to ensure the parents are getting the help they need. Lawyers advocate for the adults in the case, but CASA advocates have only one person they’re concerned about — the child.

“For the majority of these kids, if a case lasts 12 to 18 months, it’s not unusual for them to have three, four or five different workers assigned to them. DCS’s major focus is on the parent, getting services in place to address their issues.”

A volunteer who stays with that kid from the beginning are appreciated by and taken seriously by the judges, she said.

“Judges have gotten used to that consistency. It makes a huge difference for the court.”

In addition to advocating for a child’s needs, sometimes CASA gets involved in the adoption process by helping choose adoptive parents.

“CASAs are part of the interview process. When I first became a volunteer, I remember just sitting at the table and there were three different families who were interviewing (to become the adoptive parents) and I had to give my opinion on which one of these were the best for the children.

“I remember saying, “God, please don’t let me make a mistake,'” she said. “I’d been in court where families asked for the court to undo an adoption … it’s an awesome responsibility. It can also be scary.”

Advocating on behalf of children in the court system is crucial and critical work that can potentially change the lives of the youth, but Hickman stresses the responsibility is not for everyone.

“This work has a lot more impact potential and personal impact — not only in terms of how you’re going to impact the child, but how that child is going to impact you.”

The facilitator

Greenwood resident David Penoff, 59, a banking professional, has volunteered with CASA for more than six years, and purposely sought out the kids most other volunteers shy away from dealing with: teenage boys.

“I had always been active in little league and marching band and knew I wanted to be doing something with children,” he said. Penoff is married to his wife, Julie. The couple have three grown children.

He’s currently working on three cases.

He sees his role as two-fold. He reports to the court what the kids need to be happy and healthy and works as a facilitator in the lives of the youth he advocates for.

“They’re not only looking for us to report information but to make recommendations, so if there are things that they think can be done, that’s the primary thing — to be the eyes and ears of the court in that child’s life. I also believe part of the role I play is to be a facilitator, in that oftentimes I can help make things happen that need to happen.”

One example is Penoff working with a teenager who wanted to be involved in sports, but her grandparent guardian didn’t know how to help her get involved.

A phone call to the Greenwood Lassie League later, and she was on a team.

Penoff often helps kids get involved in sports activities or camps that match the kids’ interests.

“It’s not always easy to play sports when you’re a ward of the state. There are a lot of demands on your time — meetings, therapy sessions — that keep them from doing things. Some of what I do is getting that stuff worked out,” he said.

Penoff also interacts frequently with the schools where they children he represents attend. He’s advocated on a child’s behalf in a situation where the child was being bullied at school.

“The child felt they weren’t getting heard about that. I got involved in sitting down with the administrators, helping them understand what was going on,” he said.

“A lot of what we do is about listening to the kids, understanding what is important to them and what they want.”

For Penoff’s kids — he’s currently advocating for a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old — having a consistently present, responsible adult male in their lives is a a benefit they have never had.

“They don’t have a lot of positive male influences in their lives. I’m kind of a large person. They’re not going to give me any grief and they know it,” he jokes. “But sometimes making a difference is just being a person they can talk to.

“I always told all the kids I’ve worked with that they can tell me anything. I will keep their confidence long as their safety is not at risk. If you tell me something that makes me think you’re at risk, I’m going to tell whoever I need to tell.”

One teenager he works with has been in four foster homes, had three family case managers and service providers all over the state.

The teenager is about to age out of the foster system, and is getting involved in a new program that helps young adults without family homes become independent by helping them find work or job training. Penoff is helping him find the next step in his life.

“I’m the one thing — the one person — who’s been a constant in the last three years,” he said. “These kids have been in some really sad and unfortunate circumstances. For the most part, they want to have a good life and be able to do the things that any kid wants to do.”

Kids first

Mari Lory, 37, understands what it means to grow an emotional bond with the kids she advocates for. Lory, of Franklin, works with up to six children at a time, and is a mother of five children.

“I got involved because I really have a passion for kids,” she said.

Lory works part-time as a dental hygienist, so she is able to stay home with her kids during part of the week, which allows her time to make phone calls and keep up with other correspondence for her cases.

Once in a while she would see a child in her dental practice who had suffered abuse or neglect and became involved as she had to report the suspected abuse. Becoming a CASA volunteer felt like a natural step for her.

“I just thought this was a neat way to get involved. .. The neat thing is I’m not on anybody’s team besides the kids’ team. My sole responsibility is what is in the best interest of these kids. (Magistrate Andrew Roesener and Judge Mark Loyd) have told us they read the CASA reports first.”

In some cases,  just getting a child a bed to sleep is a major issue. In other cases, she watches the parents’ progression with therapy and treatment for addiction. If they don’t make progress in moving toward sobriety, she’ll recommend the judge rescind visitation privileges.

“I can be pretty strict,” she said. “You know I don’t think you should be visiting anymore if you can’t pass a drug test.”

The majority of the cases she deals with involve parental substance abuse and addiction.

In many such cases, the children’s grandparents end up taking the kids into their homes. The grandparents struggle to cope with how they ended up raising a small child.

Seeing children find some stability is gratifying, but Lory said she gets frustrated when parents decide they want their kids back but refuse to comply with the court’s requirements for drug treatment, taking random drug tests and holding a job.

“I can only imagine what these kids are going through,” Lory said. “It infuriates me that (the parents) don’t do everything they can to get them back.”

In the field

Kristin Moger, 52, first got involved when she and her husband moved to the area several years ago. She was looking for volunteer opportunities with youth due to her background in ministry. Her husband Brad Moger is pastor at Hopewell Presbyterian Church.

“I was looking into how I could assist with caring for and working with people who are more vulnerable and have less resources,” she said.

Moger typically works on two cases at a time. She makes sure she takes the time to build trust with the youth.

“I want to build their trust so they can express what they’re feeling about and what their hopes are so that I can report that back to the judge. My primary role is to make sure that the best interests of the child are being protected and conveyed to the judge.”

Moger said the most common underlying reason for the kids she works needing help is their parents’ addictions.

“It’s not in every case but it is I’d say the biggest common denominator in all the cases I see.”

She is inspired by the resiliency of the kids.

“When they have the right support, they can bounce back from some really awful experiences,” she said.

She knows she’s deeply affected, and inspired, by the kids she works with.

“I have my heart broken on a regular basis,” she said.

She said she knows all her hard work is worth it when a case reaches a successful conclusion.

“In the long run, it feels successful to me if the children are in a long-term place that is safe and secure, feeling loved and having every indication of thriving. Whether that’s back with their parents or with guardianship with some one else,” she said.

“If the child expresses they feel loved and if they family expresses they love their children and are looking forward to the future, then that’s success.”

At a glance

If you’re interested in learning more about Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), visit www.casajohnsonco.org or call director Tammi Hickman at 317-346-4561.

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Anna Herkamp is an editorial assistant at the Daily Journal. She can be reached at aherkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2712.