I learned about the CASA program from a cheese maker who is also one of our contributors to this blog- Bob Albers in Mandeville, Louisiana. He has been a CASA volunteer for 9 years.
Bob told me, “When you retire, I suggest you consider lending your talents to your local CASA program. As I wrote on my local CASA Facebook page, “We change the future, one child at a time.”
I thought that might be a good idea, so I looked it up and decided to share the info I found with you. Bob lent a hand with his thoughts from “the field” as it were, where children live in limbo between their families and the foster care system.
What is CASA?
CASA was conceived by a Seattle juvenile court judge in 1977. He was frustrated by the way he had to make life-altering decisions about abused and neglected children without having sufficient information about them. He had the idea that volunteers could speak up for the best interests of these children in the courtroom.
Now, there are over 1000 CASA programs in the US. (When I looked up my own zip code (click here), I found an office within 10 miles of my home in rural western Massachusetts.)
The volunteers are simply ordinary citizens who have been screened and trained to represent children in the “system,” which usually means foster care. The goal is to find these children permanent homes or to return them to their parents.
There aren’t enough volunteers to handle all the children who have been removed from their homes (over 6000 every year), so the judges assign the most difficult cases to the CASA workers. When you read the stories of some of the many lives that have been changed (click here), it’s evident that the program works. There are also studies to support this, described in the Evidence of Effectiveness section of the website.
The program is funded primarily by the US Department of Justice.
What do the volunteers do?
They are trained to interview everyone in the child’s life – parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers and others. This training is a minimum of 30 hours.
Then, they tell the judge what they think would be in the best interest of the child, by submitting a written report and appearing in court with the child. Most of their job is done at the beginning of a child’s case, doing the background work. After that, the average time spent is 10 hours/month.
They are expected to stay with the child until the case is closed (this usually takes 1 1/2 years or so).
Bob summarized the process for us:
Whenever children come into “state’s custody” the case involves the courts. Each parent has an attorney and so do the children. The children’s attorney is always provided by the state. The parents can provide their own attorneys, but they, too, are usually provided by the state. The Department of Children & Family Services analyzes the particular situation and comes up with an action plan, known as “the case plan.” All involved have a part to accomplish. The exact contents of the case plan is specific to the kind of abuse or neglect suffered by the children. Part of that case plan is usually a psychological evaluation for both the parents & children. Perhaps drug/alcohol rehab is warranted. Often there will be a requirement for “parenting classes.”
Bob’s experience as a volunteer:
Bob shared a couple of memorable experiences he had as a CASA volunteer with us in his interview a year ago (click here). For this article, I asked him to summarize a recent case for us:
“Sam” and his sister had been neglected by their mother as she was doing drugs. When their father worked, mom would play. The children suffered emotionally by being left alone when they returned from school to an empty, disorderly, disarrayed house with not enough food. Mom was arrested when she tried to buy cocaine from an undercover cop. She was going to pay with sex.
When this happened, the Department of Children & Family Services got an “instanter” order from the court to take the children into custody while they investigated the safety of the children.
As the father worked sometimes long hours & drove a truck interstate, temporary custody was arranged with the mother’s sister. At the request of the children’s attorney a CASA (not me) was assigned. As the case progressed, mom disappeared, and dad moved out of state with a girlfriend thinking erroneously that he had lost legal custody of his children.
As neither parent maintained contact or worked the case plan, the court changed the children’s plan from reunification. The children’s aunt was willing to adopt the little girl but not willing to care for the boy. Plan goals were changed.
The girl was adopted by her aunt and the boy’s “goal” was changed to “alternative living arrangement.” He was placed with very good & experienced foster parents. At that time, the need for continued participation of a CASA was terminated as there was a degree of finality to the children’s situation.
The department continued to contact the boy and reported his situation to the court on a regular basis. When Sam was 16 years old and in the last semester of his junior year in high school, he requested to have a CASA assigned to him. That was me.
The court order appointing a CASA allows the release of all confidential information about the child to the CASA as well as allowing the CASA to discuss the child with relatives, teachers doctors and anyone having information about the child.
A CASA does not need permission from parents to obtain any of the information he/she requires. The child is in state’s custody & the state gives permission. My first task, as in every case I take on, is to review the court records as well as the DCFS records of his case.
As I discussed his situation with the DCFS case worker, I wondered more & more, why did he ask for me? When I interviewed the teachers, I discovered he was in jeopardy of failing his Spanish course. As I spoke with Sam, I discovered that the home computer was used by his foster father for church work, as he was a pastor. Therefore, Sam was not permitted to use it.
His Spanish class was given by “distance learning.” A teacher somewhere in the world would lecture to the class via television and send class materials via fax to the school. A class proctor (not competent in Spanish) would then copy & distribute the materials to the students. The students would then use school provided computers to work the assignments and post them to the website associated with the class.
The students could also sign onto the system using their home computers. The town’s library had closed a year before due to lack of funding so no library computers were available & neither were the school computers available after hours. Such was the case in this small rural community.
I discussed the situation with my CASA supervisor who was able to locate a benevolent donor for a laptop computer. Although Sam lived in a different parish (other states call them counties) than me, I was able to secure a library card for him in my home parish. The libraries in my home parish are properly funded. He could now use the library’s tremendous on line facilities for his studies in other areas as well as for enjoyment. He passed first year Spanish.
Shortly after the end of the school year, Sam had his 17th birthday. All 17 year olds living in rural areas really need a driver’s license. It isn’t just a rite of passage for them. The social workers at DCFS were adamant about not allowing a child in foster care to take driver’s ed. or drive as their thought (mistakenly) was that the state would be responsible for any accidents they had.
Now, I had to do research into the state’s liability laws. I am not a lawyer. I have a cousin who is a retired lawyer, state representative & judge. Lucky me! I really hate to impose on him but found I had to this time. Surprisingly, he said he didn’t know if the state would be liable or not. He suggested I call my insurance company. I did.
USAA’s legal department advised me that liability for damages would be on the owner of the car held responsible in the accident & therefore the owner’s insurance company. Of course, Sam would be accountable for any misbehavior responsible for the accident. Convincing DCFS of this was my next task. Finally, in my second-to-last report to the court, I broached the subject and asked the judge to order DCFS to provide Sam with driver’s ed. (not taught in his school) and allow him to obtain his license. Success. I “advocated for the needs of the child.”
Senior year: Second year Spanish is much harder than first, especially when you don’t have a real teacher in the class with you. Compounded by the fact that he wasn’t paying attention, he again got failing grades.
What do 17 year old boys pay attention to in school? – GIRLS! Here, he had to take a few bumps on his own for him to finally realize that he was only hurting himself. I also secured a tutor for him. Math was a weak area, but I was able to help there (retired engineer).
School is out now. Sam graduated high school. He is now 18 years old and legally an adult. This is where “the system” usually fails our troubled young. It isn’t unusual for an 18 year old to not be finished with high school as their defective parent’s activities may have had a detrimental effect on their education. Sam’s one of the lucky ones.
His social worker found a junior college where he could get an associates degree in sports medicine (athletic trainer) and got him a scholarship & grant monies to pay for it. Oh, did I say he had very good & experienced foster parents? He can stay with them even though they aren’t his foster parents any longer.
Now for the block busting myth buster. Sam is white, his foster parents are black. He refers to his foster parents as Mom & Dad. There is another foster child in the house. That’s his brother. His uncle (foster) lives down the road a piece.
Occasionally, if you are lucky, that is if you are very, very lucky, you meet an angel. Two or three years ago, I was CASA for a lovely 6 year old young lady. Though she was very much a young lady, she wasn’t the angel. She was on the receiving end of the angels power – yes power. The word gift would not be sufficient to describe what Becca does. She has power and shares it generously. When I met her, she was 12 years old. Kind of young for an angel but then you don’t have to have the experience that comes with age when you have the of power to lead a legion like she has.
Becca has never been in foster care. She started out as one of the normal children in the world who are fortunate enough to have a 2 parent, loving & proper home. Some years ago, Becca took a trip through Africa with her parents. As a young girl, she witnessed the poverty of many children. She noted all the things she had that they didn’t. A significant lack in the lives of many of these children and something which she had in abundance was a doll. They had no toys with which to pass time in a loving & caring way that other children do.
Upon returning home, she discovered that there were also many children in her own community who suffered a similar plight – little girls from poor families who were in foster care. She, with her parents permission, decided to bake cookies for sale through her church to raise money to buy some dolls for children in foster care who needed them. How to distribute the dolls? Somehow, she heard of the CASA program. That would be her distribution network.
At first, there were only 5 dolls. As time passed and more bake sales took place with more people donating cup cakes, cakes, cookies of all types and anything else you can think of. All of these for the cause of providing dolls for girls who needed one. She also got her school involved in more sales. There were bake sales for all occasions, 4th of July, Mother’s day, Father’s day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s day, etc. Her second year, she raised sufficient funds that she could buy, not just basic dolls, but “American Girl” dolls. Her program gained so much popularity with her church that the ladies sewing circle decided to make outfits for the dolls. Each doll would have sets of clothing for many occasions; dress-up, casual attire, swim ware. Each set would all have coordinated accessories, hats, purses (play money in the purse), socks, stockings, shoes, underwear, whatever.
Coordinating with the CASA program, the Youth Service Bureau selects girls who will get a doll for either Christmas or Hanukkah. The descriptions of the girls, eye color, skin tone, hair color, hair stile are given to Becca. She then orders the dolls from the factory to match the physical characteristics of it’s recipient. She also tells the sewing circle the needs for this year.
Becca’s legion? Look at all the bakers, all the cookie eaters, doll clothes makers, CASA volunteers & Youth Service Bureau support staff pulling together for this one very young angel and her vision that all girls need dolls. Here is a photo of Becca with the CASAs who delivered the dolls in 2014.
Why he loves it:
Recently, Bob told me how important the program has been to him:
Although my career was tons of fun traveling all around the world (~30 countries), none of it gave me as much satisfaction as knowing that I have made a difference in someone’s life—that a child won’t grow up to be like the defective daddy or misguided mom. Not exactly what you would expect to hear from an engineer? I have grown a lot in my retirement.
Although it has nothing to do with making cheese, passing the torch and insuring that the person we pass it to isn’t getting the wrong end of the torch is an important part of life. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough men involved in the program. At the risk of seeming sexist, boys are more comfortable in the presence of a man just as girls are more comfortable in the presence of a woman. Because of that comfort, the child is more likely to “open-up” about their wants, needs & ambitions. That is a big thing in “advocating in the best interest of the child.”
We also engage in discussions with educators, doctors & relatives in the attempt to determine “the best interest of the child.” All that being said, the primary goal of the program is to assist in doing these things in the context of making the child’s natural family a safe and rewarding place for the child. Alternative placement & adoptions are sought only as a last resort. ‘Tis far better to fix what’s broken than to replace it.