We see news stories every day about children taken from abusive homes. We assume there must be a program or system that will take care of these children, ensure they are treated well, and allow them to be children again.
But there is a story behind the story that few people speak about. It is the story of the overburdened foster care and child welfare systems, which are tasked with meeting the needs of more than 600,000 children at present in the United States.
It is the story of a 6-year-old girl who has been moved to six different group homes and three schools within the past two years; the story of a toddler separated from her brothers and sisters during the most vulnerable time in her life; the story of a young man receiving a plastic bag containing his belongings at the age of 18 because he has “aged out” of the system.
These stories can have better endings, because there is a group of volunteers trained to help advocate for these children. There are people who fight for abused and neglected infants, children, and youth to ensure that their basic rights and essential needs aren’t overlooked or ignored by the system.
These stories can have better endings because of people like you! Interested in learning more? Read on:
What is a CASA Volunteer?
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer is a trained citizen who is appointed by a judge to speak in the best interests of a child who has been adjudicated as abused, neglected and/or dependent by the juvenile court system. The CASA concept was developed to ensure that judges hearing such abuse and neglect cases receive adequate facts and information necessary to make informed decisions regarding the long-term welfare of each child. In jurisdictions that have adopted a CASA program, a juvenile court judge appoints a CASA volunteer to the child’s case and the volunteer becomes a part of the judicial proceedings, working alongside attorneys and social workers in accordance with procedures established by that jurisdiction. Unlike attorneys and social workers, however, the CASA volunteer acts exclusively as the eyes and ears of the judge in observing and speaking for the child’s best interests.
What is the Role of a CASA Volunteer?
CASA advocates are typically assigned to one family case at a time to represent either a child or a sibling group. Advocates are responsible for visiting the child(ren) in their placements on a monthly basis. Advocates will also review agency reports, court documents, and other relevant records, as well as talk to the child, foster parents, case workers, and others involved in the child’s case. Utilizing the information captured, the advocate then writes a report which is submitted to the court. The judge uses the report to help her or him make decisions about the case, including the child’s placement and treatment needs. The advocate attends court on scheduled court dates and may also attend other meetings connected to the child and/or the case. Every volunteer is supported by a CASA Advocate Supervisor who advises, counsels, and guides the advocate for the duration of their case.
Who can be a CASA?
CASA volunteers are citizens from all walks of life; no special or legal background is required. Rather, volunteers are screened closely for their maturity, objectivity, communication skills, and commitment. CASA volunteers must be at least 21 years of age, able to provide three references and pass DCFS and criminal background checks, including fingerprinting. CASA volunteers must be able to keep information confidential, able to work within established court and agency guidelines, possess good listening and observation skills, and be able to prepare clear and concise written summaries of information gathered.
How Much Time is Involved Being a CASA?
Initially, a CASA volunteer must be able to complete approximately 30 hours of training. And, thereafter, a total of 12 hours of Continuing Education Credits (CEC) on an annual basis. These CEC can easily be obtained in numerous ways throughout the year. CASA volunteers are asked to make a 24-month commitment to the program. It is important that they remain with a case from the time that it is opened until the time that it is closed. CASA volunteer’s time commitment varies from case to case, week to week, and month to month. No specific number of hours is required; time is spent based upon the needs of the case. Visits to the infant, child, or youth are based on the schedules of the CASA volunteer and the family; court hearings and other meetings are set by the court or others. In general, CASA volunteers typically spend up to 15 hours per month working on their case; with an average of 6-8 hours per month over the lifespan of the case.
How Does a CASA Benefit the Child?
There are many child advocacy programs throughout the United States, but CASA is the only program in which its volunteers are appointed by a juvenile court judge. Often, the CASA volunteer is the only constant in the child’s life during this traumatic time; the attorneys, caseworkers, and even the judge may be assigned or re-assigned over the lifespan of the case. The CASA volunteer only has one case to focus on; other parties involved with the case may have dozens of other cases. CASA brings “common sense” perspectives to bear on a juvenile court case; other parties involved have institutional constraints. Studies have shown that when a child has a CASA, that child is more likely to receive services. But most importantly, simply by providing additional information that the court would not otherwise receive, the CASA will have made a difference in the life of the child.