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Mitchell CASA Program Recognized by SD Hall of Fame for Twenty Years of Advocacy for Foster Children – Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL – A local organization received an Acts of Excellence award from the South Dakota Hall of Fame on Saturday for its commitment to serving abused and neglected children.

For more than two decades, the First Circuit CASA program in Mitchell has worked to provide a source of hope and stability for foster children in South Dakota. First Circuit CASA, also known as Mitchell CASA, operates as a nonprofit organization and recruits, trains and mentors volunteers who advocate for children involved in legal proceedings.

The Acts of Excellence award, facilitated by the SD Hall of Fame, has served as a platform to inspire and recognize excellence within the community since 2015.

“This award recognizes extraordinary acts of service in our communities, just ordinary people doing great things,” said Laurie Becvar, CEO of the SD Hall of Fame. “One definition of excellence is making a difference in your community and our winner (First Circuit CASA) is certainly making a difference in their community and our state.”

To be considered for an Acts of Excellence award, nominees need a recommendation from someone, followed by completing and submitting an application along with letters of reference. Anyone can nominate a candidate for an AOE award. Recommendations and applications are generally accepted in February and March annually. The SD Hall of Fame Board of Directors Programming Committee, led by Vice Chairman Mike Cartney of Watertown, reviews and approves the awards.

Former volunteer Sandi Floyd of Mitchell nominated First Circuit CASA, highlighting the organization’s profound impact on Mitchell.

“When we saw Sandi’s nomination, what is more important work than helping children?” Becvar said. “The work this organization does to protect and advance the interests of abused and neglected children when they are involved in legal battles through no fault of their own, and to have these trained volunteers come in to support families and children, is truly remarkable . ”

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A group from Mitchell-based First Circuit CASA, including volunteers, board members and staff, was recognized in the South Dakota Hall of Fame in Chamberlain. The Mitchell CASA team was honored with an Acts of Excellence award.

Jennifer Leither / Mitchell Republic

The development of First Circuit CASA began in 2000 with a steering committee consisting of members of the Davison County Child Protection Team. The organization’s mission, then and now, is to endorse and promote court-appointed volunteer advocacy to ensure that every child who has suffered abuse or neglect can find safety, a permanent home, and the opportunity to thrive.

First Circuit CASA volunteers serve children in the foster care system in nine counties. They spend time with these children and make sure their needs are met. In addition, volunteers communicate with other individuals involved in the children’s lives, such as social workers and teachers, to ensure that everyone is working in the best interests of the children. Typically, volunteers handle one or two cases at a time.

“Ultimately, we make sure the children’s voices are heard and help make decisions that are best for them,” said Mitchell CASA volunteer Sharon Houchin.

According to Executive Director of First Circuit CASA Jackie Horton, studies show that children with a CASA volunteer have families who receive significantly more services than children without a CASA.

CASA volunteers are ordinary citizens appointed by judges. A CASA volunteer typically spends between five and twenty hours per month on tasks such as research, interviews, meetings and child visits. Volunteers remain involved with cases until they are finally resolved, which usually takes about 12 to 24 months.

The efforts of a CASA volunteer often transcend the case and the courtroom, creating a bond between the volunteers and the children they serve. It’s the relationships that Dale Houchin, Sharon’s husband, has built with the children he has worked with that keep him taking on case after case.

“I’ve been doing this for eight years and it’s the handwritten notes I get that keep me volunteering,” Houchin said. “Those notes don’t just stay on my refrigerator. They go in my file. It is very special.”

The Mitchell CASA group has 45 volunteers and four staff members. A new training will start in July. Deadline for registration is June 19.

Assistant Program Manager for Mitchell CASA Macey Bohl commended all of their volunteers for their indispensable role in supporting the court’s decision-making process, which ultimately led to better outcomes for children and families.

“Our CASA family works tirelessly to be a beacon of hope and support in the lives of the children we serve,” said Bohl. “Our volunteers are the hands and feet for them and advise on their interests in court.”

Since the program’s inception in the Mitchell area, CASA has managed more than 640 cases. On average, more than 100 children from Aurora, Brule, Buffalo, Charles Mix, Davison, Douglas, Hanson, Hutchinson and McCook counties navigate the legal system due to family crises. While some are able to stay at home, many go to foster care. In 2023, Mitchell CASA provided advocacy for 85 children.

“It is incredibly rewarding and a testament to the hard work and dedication of our entire team, volunteers, Board of Directors and First Circuit CASA staff,” said Horton. “This recognition reaffirms our commitment to making a positive impact on the lives of children and families.”

Jennifer Leither

Jennifer Leither joined the Mitchell Republic in April 2024. She grew up in Sioux Falls, SD, where she attended Lincoln High School. She continued her education at South Dakota State University, graduating in December 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. During her studies, Leither worked as a reporter for the campus newspaper The Collegian. She also interned at Anderson Publications in Canistota, SD in the summer of 2000. After graduation, Leither continued to live in the Sioux Falls area and worked as a freelance writer for the Argus Leader for several years.
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