Volunteers provide voices for children in need

A group of community volunteers provides voices for children who are involved with the courts through no fault of their own.

The volunteers, who are members of the Iowa Court Appointed Special Advocates Program, listen to children’s wants and needs and make recommendations to the judge.

“These are ordinary citizens who come from all walks of life,” said Amy Carpenter, program coordinator in Carroll County.

Carpenter oversees the program in Calhoun, Carroll, Dallas, Greene, Guthrie, Pocahontas, Sac and Webster counties.

The advocates volunteer about eight hours a month to advocate for children who have been abused or neglected.

“They learn about the issues children deal with,” Carpenter said.

They learn about the families and the situations in each case.

One of the volunteers in the program is Sandi Buhl, who has been an advocate for about four years.

“I’ve always had a passion for children,” Buhl said.

Buhl is responsible for gathering information from everyone involved in the cases.

She talks to the kids, parents, the Department of Human Services, in-home providers and has access to school records and medical records.

“It’s very rewarding seeing children placed into a secure home,” Buhl said.

Sometimes it can be frustrating, she said.

“You want the families to stay together,” Buhl said. “But there are some instances where those children need to be taken somewhere loving where they can be nurtured.”

Brian Mersch, of Fort Dodge, is another volunteer.

“You feel like you’re doing some thing good,” he said. “It’s very worthwhile.”

Mersch spends 10 to 15 hours a month with the child for whom he advocates.

Mersch said he enjoys providing a voice for underprivileged children.

When he visits the child he’s advocating for, he asks “is there anything you want me to do?”

Mersch said there’s “intense” training before advocates begin their work.

“They give you the do’s and don’ts and what they expect of you,” he said.

Before the volunteers can advocate, they go through the program’s training.

They learn about the child welfare system, juvenile law and legal procedures, child development, family dynamics and child abuse and neglect issues.

Advocates are typically assigned one case at a time, where they develop a professional relationship with the children they are helping.

“They are not mentors,” Carpenter said. “They visit with the kids once a month and develop a rapport with the kids.”

While building that rapport, the advocates learn what the children want.

“They find out what the kids need and want and advocate for that in the court,” Carpenter said.

The volunteers are unpaid to keep any bias out of their work, Carpenter said.

“It helps them be objective and find all sides of the story,” she said. “They have no vested interest in the case.”

The CASA program is always looking for more volunteers, she said.

“I always need much more exposure for the program,” Carpenter said.

The program serves all 99 of Iowa’s counties and is a part of the Iowa Child Advocacy Board and is a member of the National CASA Association.