Ina Hughes’ poem, “Prayer for Children,”describes two different kinds of children. One child brings sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, hugs us in a hurry and forgets lunch money, gets visits from the tooth fairy, squeezes toothpaste all over the sink, doesn’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool. The other type of child doesn’t have a room to clean up, never gets dessert, has never seen a dentist. For children like this, nightmares come in the daytime, monsters are real, they watch their parents watch them die, they live and move but have no being.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) founder Seattle Juvenile Court Judge David W. Soukup quotes this poem. In 1977 Judge Soukup, fueled by the realization that there was no one in the courtroom whose only job was to provide a voice for those children, established the first CASA program. He was concerned by heavy dockets, limited resources, and insufficient information. “Foster care drift” was a new phrase that year describing the way many children languished in foster care. 1977 was also the year the number of children in foster care exceeded half a million.
Judge Soukup’s vision of using trained community and lay volunteers to speak for the best interests of children in court has grown into a network of nearly 1000 (CASA) programs across the country today. Dependency court judges appoint volunteers (also called CASAs) to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to ensure they don’t get lost in the system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes.
Judges usually assign CASAs to the most difficult cases because there are not enough volunteers to represent all of the children in care. CASAs provide information to the court with the goal of facilitating permanent placement for the child. A CASA stays with a case until the child is placed permanently or until it is closed.
Every day in the U.S., 1,900 children become victims of abuse or neglect and four of them die. In Ventura County in 2015, 5,442 calls for child abuse and neglect were investigated; 585 cases were opened; 514 children were removed from their homes and entered foster care. As of December 31, 2015 there were 1,215 dependency cases in Ventura County. CASA of Ventura County is currently serving 203 children. 145 children are on the wait-list. The need for CASAs is so huge that many cases go unserved.
CASA volunteers do not have to be lawyers or social workers but come from all walks of life. They are just people in the community with big hearts. It doesn’t take special expertise to be a CASA volunteer and the program provides wonderful training and support.
Being a CASA is like being an intense Big Brother or Big Sister. The volunteers complete a 30-hour training program, undergo background checks and interviews, and only then are sworn in as officers of the court. Being empowered directly by the court allows the CASAs to speak with a child’s teacher, doctor, social worker, or other person involved in that child’s life. CASAs gather observations about the child, the child’s own requests, concerns, dreams, and submit recommendations to the court. Their reports contain information critical to ensuring that the child’s rights and needs are being attended to while they are court dependents.
CASAs listen first. They get to know the child and talk with everyone in that child’s life. CASAs develop one-on-one relationships by spending three hours a week with the child. For many of the children, a CASA is the only constant adult presence in their lives, or even the first real, safe adult presence.
CASA has become one of the most effective programs of its kind. A child with a CASA is more likely to: find a safe, permanent home; have more services ordered while in the system; spend less time in foster care; is less likely to be bounced from home to home, more likely to do better in school, less likely to be homeless as an adult, less likely to go to prison as an adult, less likely to become pregnant as a teen, and more likely to finish high school than other children in dependency court. Many CASAs describe their volunteer work and advocacy as the most meaningful of their life because they see the difference it makes in the child’s life before their very eyes.
CASA of Ventura County recruits, trains and supports community volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in our community. Notably, almost 50% of the children assigned a CASA are boys, but fewer than 20% of the volunteers are male. The importance of a stable, compassionate male role model advocating for these boys in our foster care system cannot be overstated.
Inclusiveness and continued development of volunteer training remain high priorities. Part of the continuing education for CASAs in Ventura County is the popular CASA book club which meets on a quarterly basis, usually in a CASA’s home. Some of the on the list recently are Runaway Girl by Carissa Phelps, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh,How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and Somebody’s Someone by Regina Louise.