SIOUX CITY | Fortunately for most children, they grow up in a home absent chaos such as physical abuse and drug use.
Those who do face these types of situations often find themselves removed from home and stuck in a cycle of court hearings and uncertainty, wondering what's going to happen to them and perhaps wishing they'd have the chance to tell caseworkers, lawyers and judges how they'd like to see their case resolved.
Cammie Mengwasser and other volunteers have given children that voice, looking out for the child's best interests while the child welfare system determines if the family can be reunited.
"I like to focus on how they're feeling about things. I tell the kids, 'I'm going to court, what do you want me to tell the judge,'" said Mengwasser, a volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
Known as CASA, the program serves the child welfare system. Appointed by judges, CASAs, as the volunteers are often called, represent children up to age 18 who have been removed from their home for any number of reasons -- physical or sexual abuse, drug use in the home, domestic violence, neglect. The CASA's role is to make recommendations to the court to ensure the needs of the child are being met.
Mengwasser volunteered with the program for three years before working for CASA while living in Wyoming. After moving to the Sioux City area a year ago, she volunteered to be a CASA in Woodbury County.
"The kids are what keeps me going," she said. "If I'm not here to speak for them, then they have to go it alone. No second spent with a kid is time wasted."
It's not the easiest volunteer job. CASAs work with children who sometimes face heartbreaking situations at home. In many cases, the CASA is the only person who speaks up for the child when authorities are trying to figure out how best to resolve the situation.
It's her job, Mengwasser said, to meet frequently with the child and know how any decision will affect him or her. It can be tough to walk into a meeting with a judge, lawyers, parents and caseworkers, knowing they all might be considering something that might not be best for the child.
"We don't always agree. Actually, a lot of times we don't agree," she said. "This role as a volunteer, it's not all rainbows and butterflies all the time. You're dealing with conflict. You have to be willing to go into a room and say this is what the child is telling me. There are going to be times when you are standing alone."
For that reason, anyone considering volunteering for CASA must carefully consider the commitment involved and not just jump in. The children have already had adults in and out of their lives who haven't followed through on things.
A case can last anywhere from three months to three years, and while the goal is always to reunify the family, that doesn't always happen.
"I've had cases that could not have ended any more perfect. But there are times when it just wasn't safe enough for the kids to return," Mengwasser said.
She brings up a case in Wyoming in which it was determined two little girls would not return to their parents. They ultimately were adopted by foster parents and are now excelling in school. Their birth mother remains involved in their lives, too.
Last year, Woodbury County's 41 CASA volunteers helped 115 children. There are many more cases that could use a CASA's help, Mengwasser said. She believes every child in the system deserves a CASA volunteer on his or her side. It's not always easy, but the knowledge that you're making a difference in a child's life is worth all the tough times.
"I like to think I'm making a difference for these kids even if it's something super small," she said.
In these cases, any gesture of kindness shown toward a child isn't small. It's likely one of the biggest things any one of us can do.