Be a CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocate
Our world presents us with many problems that are so large we may feel we can do little to make a difference. CASA is a program where one individual’s efforts can change a life, often lives, for the better.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States at any given moment. During the course of a typical year, about 800,000 children go through the foster care system at some point. These kids have been taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect. Many have witnessed – or been the recipients of – physical violence. Many could not count on being regularly fed. Some were homeless. In about 40% of the cases, the parents were abusing drugs or alcohol, and this percentage appears to be rising with the current opioid epidemic.
When children are taken from their parents by a welfare agency, they are likely first placed in a foster home that accepts kids on short notice. They will generally be moved to more permanent foster placement within a few weeks. However, moving three or four times, from home to home, is not uncommon. The median time that these children spend in foster care is a little over a year.
The immediate concern of child welfare agencies is the safety of the child. Foster care tries to provide predictable family environments and the necessary adult care to meet the child’s emotional, physical, and educational needs. The longer-term goal is to help the parents correct the issues that caused the child to be placed in foster care and to enable them to create the safe, stable home that would allow the family to be reunited. Even under the best of circumstances, this is not easy; but the existing system is not the best of circumstances. The child welfare system within the United States has long been broken due to insufficient funding. According to the General Accounting Office, many of the child welfare agencies in the United States have difficulty recruiting and retaining caseworkers, with 30% annual turnover not uncommon. The major problems are reported to be low salaries in many areas, high caseloads, burdensome administrative tasks (more than 50% of caseworkers’ time can be taken up with paperwork and court appearances), and concerns about violence from children or parents.
The job of caseworkers is to help families confront difficult issues, such as employment, transportation, housing, substance abuse, violence, and mental health problems. Caseworkers are continually frustrated by a lack of sufficient resources to help families deal with those issues. Overworked caseworkers find it virtually impossible to carefully monitor all the aspects of each foster child’s life – much less establish meaningful personal relationships with them – while also providing complete information to the court, especially since much of their efforts are directed not toward the child, but toward the parents.
In the 1970s, David Soukup, a superior court judge in the state of Washington, noticed that social workers’ recommendations for many children in foster care were very similar. The uniformity bothered him. How could one plan fit all these widely varied family circumstances? He felt a growing discomfort that his decisions in juvenile dependency cases were not based on sufficient information about what was really in the best interests of the individual child. There was no one in the courtroom whose only job was to provide a voice for the child.
In 1977, Soukup and a social worker, Carmine Ray-Bettineski, put together a program to train volunteers to gather information and speak in court for children in dependency and custody cases. The volunteers were later dubbed Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASAs. The idea of using volunteers spread quickly. Today, a network of 1,000 CASA programs is well-established throughout the country.
Each CASA meets weekly with their CASA kid, gathers information that will give a judge a more complete picture of the child’s life, and advocates for appropriate special services for the child, such as an Individualized Education Plan, counseling, or physical therapy. CASAs interview people who are important in the child’s life, such as foster parents, teachers, therapists, doctors, and relatives. As an “Officer of the Court,” the CASA can obtain medical and educational reports that would otherwise be confidential. All this information – including descriptions of the child’s activities, concerns, and desires – is incorporated into a report to the court. Very often the CASA report will contain more information than the social worker’s report because the CASA has more time to devote to a single child. Social workers, lawyers involved in the case, and judges value the information that CASAs contribute to decisions that are best for the child.
We have been CASAs for a little over a year. After completing thirty hours of training, we were each assigned to a young child in foster care. We learned that children who have been neglected and exposed to violence and drugs in the home come to distrust others, detach emotionally, and often respond with aggression. CASA training included not only an understanding of these issues, but also effective ways to address them. The initial training is only a beginning. Volunteers are offered continuing in-service training, and every CASA has a case supervisor who is always available to help find solutions to unique problems.
In the short time we have been CASAs, we have witnessed some sobering situations. These include a significant unaddressed health problem, a child so withdrawn as to have stopped talking, and another who regularly pushed and hit other kids and adults, making this child’s school experience a continuing challenge. From these children’s well-founded perspectives, neither their peers nor any authority figures were to be trusted. Growing up with little expectation of even something so basic as regular meals, it made sense to hoard food and become fixated on whether or not meals would be on time and sufficient.
Quakers uphold a long tradition of bearing witness. We can now bear witness to the wonderful changes that occur when a child is in a stable and loving environment, and develops confidence that their needs will be met. We also see that our witness is a part of that transformation – the part that watches to see if the other parts are functioning and that focuses on the child.
We spend time with our CASA kids every week. Monthly, the CASA staff gives us ideas for fun activities and often provides us with free vouchers from businesses in our community that want to help with our efforts. This is important, because CASA volunteers are not allowed to spend much money on their CASA kids. Quality time with the child is the currency we spend. We’ve gone to movies and plays and library story-time, visited the zoo and playgrounds, baked cookies in the CASA office kitchen, and walked on the beach. Over time, our relationships with our CASA kids have changed and matured. Early on, when a MacDonald’s customer asked one of our CASA kids if the gray-haired companion was a grandparent, the child responded, quite dismissively, “No, she’s just my worker.” Recently, in a similar situation, the response was, “No, she’s my friend,” followed by a big hug. The sense of joy, relief, and validation was immense.
Becoming a CASA and helping a child in need is demanding, but also extremely valuable, rewarding, and even life-changing – and not just for the child! The need is great. In our small community of Humboldt County, California, CASA serves 85 children, but 200 other kids in foster care would benefit greatly from the program, if only volunteers were available. The need in your community is also great. Please contact your local CASA office, go to an introductory class, and see if this form of community service is right for you. ~~~
John and Lynn Dixon have been active in Quaker meetings for over forty years, and are currently members of Humboldt Friends Meeting (PYM). John is an ecologist and Lynn a nurse-midwife, but when they retired they decided to devote themselves to CASA and to a literacy project, helping people become proficient in English.