Imagine being a child removed from home and placed with strangers. Maybe Mom’s a drug addict who can’t manage to keep food in the house or get you to school every day. Or maybe you’ve been beaten or sexually abused. But you love your parents and it’s frightening to be in this strange house with these people you don’t know. You wonder: Did I do something wrong? When can I go home?
In Pierce County over thirteen-hundred children are in foster care, and as result they are our most vulnerable citizens. They have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents and their stories can break your heart.
Whether they return home or are freed for adoption will be decided in court. Often, their parents have lawyers, and so does the Department of Social and Health Services.
But who represents the children?
For many of these children the answer is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over abused and neglected children and advocate for them. They make sure children don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system, or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives, staying with the child until he or she is placed in a safe, permanent home and the case is closed.
Typically, a CASA volunteer spends two years on a child’s case, although the time can vary.
The program is effective. Independent research has demonstrated that children with a CASA volunteer are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care and less likely to re-enter foster care.
CASA volunteers are everyday citizens, over age 21, who have undergone screening and training. Hours are flexible and much of this volunteer work can be done from home. After training, a professional CASA supervisor works with the volunteer to ensure that he or she is comfortable with the process.
CASA volunteers are similar to, but different than another group of child advocates, the Guardian ad Litems, the “law guardians” who represent the interests of the child in court, and are paid by the county.
All CASA volunteers serve as Guardians ad Litum (GALs), but not all GALs are CASAs.
There are also attorneys who fill this role as Washington state law requires that each child be appointed a court advocate. Approximately half of the foster children entering court in Pierce County have a CASA as their GAL, while the remainder have paid GALs; so clearly, CASA is a big savings to the taxpayer.
CASA volunteers meet with the kids at least once a month. Additionally, they talk to the parents and foster parents, and teachers, counselors, and any other relevant service providers. This is not a Big Brother/BigSister program, as we don’t take the kids on outings or provide any direct services.
In addition, we do not supervise visits or transport children. However, depending on the child’s age we talk and play with them, and let them know that we are there to learn of their wishes and thus be able to better inform the judge of the child’s desires.
Of course, the judge might not do what the child wants! The child might, for instance, want to go home, but the judge won’t send him home if it’s not safe.
Essentially a CASA has four duties:
(1) Investigate the case, including an objective examination of the history, home environment, and needs of the child.
(2) Facilitate a collaborative relationship between all parties involved in the case.
(3) Advocate for the child.
(4) Monitor the case, keeping track of whether the orders of the court and plans of child protective services agencies are carried out.
I have been a CASA volunteer here in Pierce County for about a year and I also serve on the volunteer recruitment committee.
My personal background is that I have an undergraduate degree in Human Services and an MBA. I worked for Social Services in Buffalo, NY for several years, including 18 months as a permanency planning caseworker in foster care.
I have also worked as the volunteer director at the Erie County (NY) public hospital, and also as a financial advisor.
Four years ago, my husband and I retired, moving to Tacoma to be near family, which has allowed us to become Mountain News readers.
For those interested in the CASA program, Pierce County is currently recruiting for new volunteers, and there is a special need for male volunteers and for volunteers of color.
For more information: (253) 798-3837 or http://www.washingtonstatecasa.org/
I would also like to express my thanks to the Mountain News for its interest in this subject.
© 2011 Mary Bartley