ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — The Winnebago County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organization, which is meant to protect abused or neglected children going through the legal system, would not exist without the help of its volunteers.

Abby Finley has volunteered for CASA for around nine months.

“I saw an ad on a bus, three times in a row,” she said. “I was like, ‘ok, that’s my sign. I need to apply.'”

Finley says she brings a unique perspective to her volunteer role since her full-time job is working as the marketing director for the Rockford Rescue Mission.

She says there is a lot of overlap between the two organizations. Some Mission clients are working to regain custody of their children. Others trace their current situation, which landed them at the Mission, back to childhood trauma.

“You walk into it thinking, ‘Oh. I’m gonna impact this child. I’m gonna impact this case or these kids.’ But you’re truly changed for the better,” she said.

“That’s how we see that generational change, is when you start working with young kids and being that advocate and that person for them that they can turn to,” she added.

A CASA volunteer serves as a fact finder for a court judge, speaks for the child in the courtroom, and acts as a “watchdog” for the child during the life of the case. Volunteers typically make an 18 or 24 month commitment, spending approximately 10 to 15 hours a month on a case.

Burnette Shivers has been a volunteer with CASA nearly since the beginning, in 1989, inspired by her first grandchild’s birth.

“This is a gift to me, so whatever I can do for children, this is what I’ll do,” she said of her work.

She says she knows she has made a difference over the years but remains modest about her impact.

“I guess I would think that I played a small part,” Shivers said. “A small part.”

CASA has enough staff and volunteers to serve around 300 children. Executive Director John Papiernik says there are roughly 1,000 more kids who could use a court advocate.

“These kids, at the end of the day, are victims. They haven’t done anything wrong. They are victims,” he said. “They’re victims of abuse and neglect, and that is why they’re in the court system.”

Many of the children CASA works with end up in foster care.

Papiernik says part of CASA’s role is crime prevention.

“Some of those prevention measures are keeping kids out of the foster care system [or] getting them through the foster care system as fast as we can,” he said. “Because we also know that kids that go into five or more foster placement are 90%…going to end up in the criminal justice system. That’s 9 out of 10.”

The process of becoming a CASA volunteer starts with an online application, an interview, and several weeks of training. Volunteers must be 21 years of age, and have either a high school diploma or GED equivalent.

If you are a survivor of domestic or sexual violence, visit our Stateline Strong page for resources.