So you want to get involved with foster care, but you’re not in a place to provide a home for a child in the system right now. And while your heart breaks for these kids and you want to do something for them, maybe you find the idea of mentoring a teenager—or even a first-grader—a little intimidating. There’s another option for you to have considerable impact on the life of a child in foster care: Become a court-appointed special advocate, or a CASA. These volunteers are appointed by a judge to present information in court on behalf of a child in foster care.
Nearly 40 years ago, a judge in Seattle decided he was unable to make well-informed decisions on behalf of the abused and neglected children in his courtroom with only the information he received from the state. He thought these children would be better served if a volunteer advocate was dedicated to each case. Each special advocate would be committed to gathering information about one child (or maybe several, but not the 25 to 40 that each social worker was responsible for) to present to the judge and speak in favor of that child’s best interests. Fifty people responded to his idea and the CASA program was born. Today, 73,000 volunteers in 933 programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia represent 238,000 children.
CASAs come from all walks of life—no need for a legal background. You need never have set foot in a courtroom before or studied law. You must be 21 years old, undergo a background check, complete training, and have the time to appear in court. To Become a CASA, you must go through 30 hours of training, learning about your role as, social issues affecting families, child development, and the court process. You will then be offered a case that you can review and take on, or turn down if you don’t feel it’s a good fit. Once matched, you get to know the child, speaking with teachers, counselors, lawyers, social workers, and foster parents, and of course the child himself. You compile as much information as possible and every six months, you present a report to the judge, alongside the other officials working on the child’s case, making recommendations about the best course of action for this child.
As a CASA, when you take on a case, you commit to staying with the child until the case is closed, working to achieve permanency in a stable, loving home if possible. The average case lasts about a year and a half, but some can be shorter, and some can be much longer. You can expect to invest 10 to 15 hours a month on a case. And you can choose whether you want to take on more than one case.
A CASA’s role is different than that of a social worker. Like a social worker, a CASA is working to achieve the best outcome for the child; however, the CASA is dedicated to just that child. In addition to juggling many more cases, a social worker is also concerned with the child’s birth family, helping all members to find solutions to the crises that necessitated foster care to begin with. A CASA is also different than a mentor. Like a mentor, a CASA develops a relationship with the child; but, the CASA’s primary role is to gather information about the child in order to present findings to a judge, to better assist that judge in making decisions in the child’s best interest, and monitoring case plans and court orders, to ensure they are being implemented. The CASA doesn’t go on social outings with the child and doesn’t have a part in the child’s day to day life.
CASAs are effective. According to a 2006 federal audit, children with CASAs are less likely to spend more than three years in foster care, saving taxpayers close to $50 million annually—and more importantly, finding permanency with a loving family faster. Judges have reported that they highly value the presence of a CASA, and in fact, often the information the social worker presents was received from the CASA.
Like a mentor, a CASA might be the only consistent adult in the life of a child in foster care. Children in the system bounce from foster home to foster home, attend many different schools, and can be shuffled among several social workers and lawyers. A CASA can provide stability and the assurance that at least one adult cares what happens.
If you’re interested in becoming a CASA, check out the website.
Tune in Monday to read about a CASA.