Child advocate stalwart is CASA festival chair

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

Kelle Gilmore had not been involved in work with juveniles until after law school, when she clerked for Judge Jon Gray in family court.  

It stirred a passion for child advocacy that’s continued to this day. 

Gilmore, a Raytown High School and 2004 UMKC Law School alum, has practiced family law for years as a second-generation attorney in the Independence firm Burmeister Gilmore and also serves as a guardian ad-litem for Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates, working with case volunteers to advocate the best interests of abused and neglected children. For a time, Gilmore also worked as a staff attorney for CASA. 

Kelle Gilmore, a longtime volunteer for the non-profit Jackson County CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates – is honorary co-chair of this year’s CARnival for CASA benefit, which is Saturday at Unity Village.

She is an honorary co-chair for Saturday’s annual CARnival for CASA at Unity Village, a drive-thru benefit event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. that was rebranded last year amid the pandemic. The carnival is open to the public, with a $60 per vehicle cost. Other honorary co-chairs are longtime supporters Dan and Christy Blegen, formerly of Lee’s Summit. 

In Gilmore’s volunteer role as a guardian ad-litem – one of 20 who work with CASA – is required in Jackson County for family court, and the advocates who make one-on-one visits with children do the ground work for a collaborative approach that she says works well. 

Children were able to pet a docile snake in the one of the activities during last year's drive-thru CARnival for CASA at Unity Village.

“The reason I enjoyed it so much was I got to see families come into the system – many were not so bad but needed some help – and when they leave they have a tool kit to help reunite or stay together,” Gilmore said. “You don’t get that as much in domestic practice. Family court buys into the concept of rehabilitation.” 

“Often times we also let the court know what the child wants, but also what we believe would be best,” she said. “It really creates a great environment to challenge each other. Are we really serving the best interest of the child, and in my opinion it’s best practice. I wish CASA’s model could be used in my other cases. It’s insightful to get everybody’s opinions.” 

The annual carnival, said Gilmore, a mother of two daughters, is “my time to get to be a cheerleader for the organization. I always feel like I’m talking to my friends about CASA, and I also like that it’s family centered and our own kids can be involved in it.” 

The carnival, at 1901 N.W. Blue Parkway, Lee’s Summit, will have more than 20 activity booths, treats and lunch for every person in a car, an optional nature walk or scavenger hunt, yard games and a raffle and take-home prizes. In addition to the public, children served by CASA attend – and for many it’s their first carnival or their favorite day of the year amid trauma at home. 

‘Never stopped attending’ 

The pandemic altered how the non-profit CASA and its volunteers tried to help children in Jackson County, president and CEO Angie Blumel said, but it certainly didn’t change the need for services. 

“We never stopped attending to the children we served,” Blumel said. “Really, everything went virtual. We conducted visits via FaceTime or Zoon or scheduled calls or drive-by visits.  

“It changed the way we delivered our services but didn’t necessarily change how much we served.  

“For children and their families, the pandemic was especially hard. It just really made things worse, with food insecurity, people lost jobs, or they’re behind on rent.” 

In 2019, CASA served 1,264 children, and in 2020 it served 1,140, Blumel said. This year, it’s on track for more than 1,250. All the while, officials have believed that still represents no more than half the children in the county removed from their homes for safety by the court system. 

Blumel said her organization saw a 50 percent decline in the number of calls to the child abuse hotline in Jackson County, but they say they don’t think that reflects a good trend – rather that children were seen less often by mandated reporters.  

“Absolutely,” she said, it was more difficult for case workers. “Just to not be able to go visit and read a book, or to ask a school how it’s going with a kid.” 

As communities slowly reopen, Blumel said CASA is experiencing a trickling increase for needed services, as opposed to a surge, but they’re also dealing with fewer volunteer advocates. Normally more than 300 advocates for children around the county, and Blumel is encouraging more community members to volunteer. Cases required about eight to 10 hours a month. CASA also has seven staff attorneys to help guide cases in court. 

“We will train you,” Blumel said. “You just need a heart for serving kids.”