Being a courtroom advocate for children is a bittersweet endeavor for 61-year-old Gene Climer.
While the Lemont man is saddened by the circumstances that bring youths into the judicial system, he's nonetheless glad to be in a position to help.
"It tugs at your heart, but you feel good that you're there for them," the retired sales manager said.
Climer is one of nearly 130 people who volunteer with CASA of DuPage County, a Wheaton-based nonprofit celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
The group provides advocates for children who enter the court system because they were abused or neglected, or are dependents of the state or delinquent. Advocates regularly visit with the children and compile reports that judges can use to help determine a child's best interest.
"Our role is to be the voice of the child in court," Executive Director Lisa Drake said.
While many counties have child advocacy programs, DuPage is unique in that every child entering the system has a volunteer on their side. Statewide, the average is closer to 19 percent, Drake said.
But the demand for volunteers has grown along with the number of children in need. In the past year, CASA served 322 children compared with 282 during the prior 12 months. That's a 14-percent spike.
Drake said a variety of factors could play into the caseload, from the economy to the speed at which cases are resolved. She said the group had its busiest year in fiscal 2009 with 342 children.
"You can see how crucial our volunteers are," she said. "We're assigned by the court, so most people don't know of us and haven't heard of CASA. We fly under the radar of the average citizen, but all the kids we serve are the kids who are going to be our future or not. It's really a dedicated group."
A snapshot of the numbers in DuPage shows neglect is the foremost concern, with nearly 60 percent of CASA's clients being served for that reason. About 29 percent were physically abused, while 7 percent are dependent on the state because their parents are incarcerated or otherwise not caring for them. Sexual abuse accounts for 4 percent of those entering the system; just 1 percent are delinquent.
Privacy restrictions prevents CASA from speaking publicly about specific cases, but volunteers generally say they have no doubt advocacy makes an impact.
"In DuPage, the judges take our reports and comments very seriously and will take action if they believe it's in the best interest of the child," said Climer, who recently made a relevant finding in one case.
"I've been impressed with the system even more so than I thought I'd be. It just makes you realize you can really make a difference in somebody's life."
Private donations, grants and fundraisers fuel the organization's $440,000 annual budget, which includes four employees who lead the volunteers.
Drake said anyone can apply to be an advocate. Suitable candidates pass background screenings, interview with the agency, and receive training before being assigned a case. They're asked to commit to at least one case from start to finish. A typical case lasts in the neighborhood of 32 months.
"We have a lot of retired schoolteachers, primarily women. We would love to have more men," Drake said. "We're looking for people who are objective, can make a long-term commitment and who can avoid getting emotionally involved. That's one of the hardest things we have to ask our advocates to do."
For Climer, formerly of Downers Grove and Westmont, signing up was a matter of deciding where he wanted to put his volunteerism after retiring from the software business last year.
Climer said he became interested in CASA after writing a report on the program years ago for a class at DePaul University. After applying in August, he graduated training with a group of advocates last fall and has since been working a case.
"It's very rewarding," he said. "These children are part of the court system through no fault of their own, which is the sad piece to this. But you're very thrilled when you're able to make a difference. The resiliency of some of these children just amazes me. My plan is to stay with it as long as I can."
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. To mark the occasion, along with CASA's 20th anniversary, the group had its second annual Hands Around the Courthouse event Thursday, April 12, at the courthouse in Wheaton.
Volunteers had a moment of silence and wore blue ribbons representing local victims. There were also blue pinwheels representing the 86 children who died in Illinois last year from abuse or neglect.
For information, visit CASA of DuPage County online at www.dupagecasa.org or call Development Director Karen Patton at (630) 221-0889.