Across the state, foster families are increasingly receiving visits from CASA volunteers. Who are these people, and why are they knocking at your door?
CASAs, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are specially screened and trained citizen volunteers who are appointed by the court to make reports and recommendations concerning a foster child's best interests. The program was created by Judge David Soukup, a Probate Judge in Seattle, in 1977. Judge Soukup wanted more information than was typically provided by attorneys and caseworkers before making the difficult decision whether to terminate parental rights or reunify the family. He recruited and trained a handful of volunteers, giving them the mandate of gathering enough information so that they could offer the court independent recommendations regarding the best interests of the child. The program was an instant success, and began spreading across the country.
After an extensive background check, new volunteers complete an intensive 30-hour training curriculum that includes the child protection system, child welfare law, the dynamics of abuse and neglect, child development, and the juvenile justice system. Those that complete training are generally appointed to just one case at a time, and stay on that case until a permanent resolution is reached.
Once appointed, the CASA begins a thorough review of the child's history and situation. After reading the court file, the CASA makes contact with birth and foster families, other relatives, teachers, counselors, and all other individuals who have information about the child. The CASA meets with the child at least once a month, in order to develop a true understanding of the child and to create a relationship of trust and honesty. Open communication with the foster family is essential to the volunteer's understanding of the child's situation.
CASAs share their findings and opinions with the child's attorney, caseworker, and others involved in providing services to the child. Prior to every hearing, the CASA prepares a written report detailing the child's situation and listing a series of recommendations. Depending on the stage of the proceeding, the recommendations range from services the child and/or family should receive to suggestions regarding final placement. The CASA attends hearings, offering testimony as needed. Because the CASA offers these findings strictly on the basis of the child's best interests, the reports typically carry a great deal of weight with the court.
A child removed from his or her home because of abuse or neglect is thrown into a difficult and frightening situation. The job of a CASA volunteer is to connect with the child, learn the facts, write reports, interact with the relevant parties and advocate for the child's best interest.
CASAs also may meet with lawyers, social workers, parents, teachers, other family members, clergy or anyone who can provide relevant information. They have access to all records pertaining to the child's history.
CASAs are well trained in the relevant laws, services, courtroom procedures, the juvenile justice system and the special needs of abused or neglected children before being assigned to a case. Continuing education is a regular (typically monthly) requirement. CASAs are sworn in as Officers of the Court by a judge.
A CASA provides information to the court that most completely represents not only the wishes of the child, but also the best solution to providing a safe and permanent home. Ideally, the initial problem is resolved and the child returns home. Alternatively, foster care or adoption may be the best answer to a safe and permanent home that can give the child the best opportunity for a real childhood.
Volunteers come in all sizes, shapes, genders, ethnicities, professions and educational backgrounds. The work is challenging, but rewarding.
Become a volunteer or donate to this important program which is severely limited in the funding from the court. These children need CASA volunteers and they need you or your support.
Every Child Deserves a Voice – Especially in Court