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Ben Mikesell | The Journal Gazette
Rex McFarren, who founded the Allen County CASA program, plans to retire next month.

Children’s advocate retiring from the fray

Founded county’s CASA program nearly 30 years ago

Ben Mikesell | The Journal Gazette
Rex McFarren had planned to buy a bar before he applied for a job that led to directing the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in Allen County.

He is its institutional knowledge.

Rex McFarren has been the face of Allen County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program since its inception.

The program shepherds children who have been victimized in some way as their cases work their way through the Allen County court system. CASA volunteers act as the child’s voice in the court system, advocating for a position that is best for the child and the child’s long-term well-being.

McFarren, 65, has been at the job for nearly 30 years – a career path he chose instead of owning a bar. But with recent changes to the state’s public employee retirement fund, it made sense for him to hang it up and retire next month.

But his presence in the tiny little office on the courthouse’s second floor or at the Youth Services Center on Lima Road will be missed by those who have come to rely on his compassion and expertise.

“He’s been extraordinarily valuable to this community,” said Judge Charles Pratt, who heads Allen Superior Court’s Family Relations Division.

Only four full-time professionals make up Allen County’s CASA program, including McFarren. But there are 140 volunteers right now, a number sometimes higher and sometimes lower.

A mother’s idea

McFarren said he fell into the director’s job almost by accident.

He attributes it to the actions of his likely embarrassed mother, who was worried he was headed for a career as a tavern owner.

In the late 1970s, McFarren was working on his master’s degree in social work from IPFW. But even though he was serving as the supervisor of child protective services in Lima, Ohio, he and his family made so little money they qualified for food stamps.

His wife got a job in Fort Wayne and McFarren worked as a house husband for a bit. Frustrated by the lack of financial resources, he says he gave up social work and decided to buy a bar because that’s where he felt he could make some money.

He started working nights at a local liquor store.

“I think my mom was embarrassed,” he said, laughing.

She came to him with an article from a newspaper about a new job opportunity, to get a new grant-funded program off the ground.

McFarren sent in a résumé and a cover letter, for no more reason than to get her off his back, he said.

He was hired.

At most, he figured it was going to be an 18-month gig, until the grant money ran out. And in the beginning, it was just him, a $36,000 salary for the 18 months he would have to persuade the Allen County Council to provide the funding to keep the program going.

Starting from scratch

In the late 1970s, state criminal codes began adopting mandatory reporting laws, making child abuse more of a public issue than a private problem. The first CASA program started in Seattle as an effort to deal with an influx of needy children and families.

“The system was getting overwhelmed,” McFarren said.

When he started the local program in 1985, local child welfare workers and lawyers were not thrilled to have CASA up and running.

“They viewed it as a bunch of do-gooders, coming into the system who didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “(We) were just going to screw things up.”

McFarren attributes the continued success of the program, and its ability to overcome earlier skepticism with the quality of volunteers he was able to pull on board.

They were people so dedicated to the idea of the CASA program, they stood at grocery stores on weekends, collecting signatures on petitions to get the County Council to fund it.

“It was the right time, the right place, and the right people,” he said.

But those who know, who work with children in unsafe homes with unstable adults in their lives, they put much of the credit for the success on McFarren.

“He was really the person who put this whole idea of CASA together in this community,” Pratt said. “It was cutting edge back at the time. He really did invent the wheel for making it work in Allen County.”

Neither McFarren nor his volunteers have ever been hesitant to challenge a decision they did not feel was in the best interest of the children, Pratt said.

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards relies on that advocacy spirit from McFarren, knowing he will always make sure the children have a voice that is heard.

“He’s going to be missed, that’s for sure,” she said. “He’s one of those people that when I need to know how to proceed with something that concerns a child, Rex’s opinion is always one that I can trust.”

Looking ahead

Seeing all the pain and trauma endured by the county’s children would be something that weighs down a soul.

But McFarren said he tries to leave it at the office, and keeps a very short-term memory, forgetting easily what he doesn’t want to remember.

He sees the children they save successfully as building a kind of inverted pyramid – getting one child safely into productive adulthood where that person will connect with another productive and stable adult and have a productive and stable family.

“It’s not necessarily about the here and now,” he said. “It’s about down the road a lot.”

He and his wife, Carolyn McFarren, have three adult children – a son who is an art teacher, another son who is a physical therapist and a daughter who is a speech pathologist.

McFarren seems unconcerned about how to adjust to retirement. He plans to take September and October off, to enjoy his favorite time of year without commitment or demand.

Right now, he personally handles 48 cases, as well as sharing the administrative duties of the office.

He believes he will volunteer somewhere but will not return to CASA, wanting to have a clean break with the agency he helped build.

It’s unclear who will replace him.

When he steps away, he is leaving a huge hole.

“He has served the county in ways that people don’t fully recognize, what he’s done as a public servant,” Pratt said. “He’s got a spirit about him that people are naturally wanting to work with him.”