A Voice for the ChildrenMar 01, 2016 ● By Carolyn Cameron
Every eight minutes, a child in Texas suffers from abuse and neglect. According to the Child Welfare League of America, nearly 65,000 Texas children faced individual child abuse, neglectful conditions or even fatalities in 2013. Last year, in Collin County alone, more than 1,650 cases of child abuse and neglect were confirmed by Child Protective Services (CPS). While the foster care system was originally designed to temporarily protect and nurture these children, whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them, unfortunately, it is not always effective or equipped to ensure that children’s basic needs and rights are protected. However, a simple and effective solution exists, and that is the CASA volunteer.
CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocates.” A CASA volunteer is a trained individual who provides a consistent, strong and clear voice for abused and neglected children as they navigate through a complicated legal and often somewhat lengthy system. The CASA volunteer often serves as the only stable, trusted adult in a child’s life as he or she encounters the changing dynamics of the foster care system.
Anna Adams, the CASA Collin County development manager, explains, “The impact a CASA provides is huge. Whether it is a retired community member, a stay-at-home mom or a business professional giving back, these volunteer advocates provide the first step in helping to eradicate the immense threat children face with abuse and neglectful conditions. The CASA provides the judge an unbiased opinion and voice for the children and allows a volunteer to truly represent the best interest of the child, and only the child.”
CASA was originally born from the idea of a Seattle, Wash., judge who was concerned about having insufficient information regarding abused and neglected children while making decisions impacting their lives. The judge envisioned using trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of children in court. A Seattle program was created in 1977, and the success was so pronounced, that soon, judges began utilizing citizen advocates across the country. In 1990, the U.S. Congress encouraged the expansion of CASA with the passage of the Victims of Child Abuse Act. From that first program, a network of nearly 1,000 CASA groups and guardian ad litem (GAL) programs have been created, supporting volunteers in 49 states and the District of Columbia. The Collin County CASA was established in 1991 and is considered one of the state’s most respected social service organizations, providing advocates for nearly 522 children in 2015. Indeed, the program saves taxpayers up to $4 million because the organization operates 100 percent tax-free to Collin County and was awarded the Promising Practice Award from the National CASA for the outstanding success of the local program.
As the CASA website states, “CASA volunteers are just everyday citizens appointed by judges to advocate for the safety and well-being of children who have been removed from their homes.” For each case, a CASA volunteer advocate and a casework supervisor serves on each foster child’s case during the long and often complicated process of investigating circumstances and determining the safety of a home for a child. In addition to visiting with a child face-to-face at least twice a month, CASA volunteers spend time with the child and obtain firsthand information from all parties involved in the child’s life to provide independent testimony in court. Overall, a child who has a CASA volunteer by his or her side receives more services, moves through the system more quickly, performs better in school and possesses a better chance of a successful outcome than a child without a CASA volunteer.
Statistics show that the program works. According to the 2014 National Statistics for the CASA Association, children with CASA volunteers spend seven and a half months less in foster care, experience fewer out-of-home placements and have significantly improved educational performance than those children who do not. Additionally, more than 90 percent of children with CASA volunteers never re-enter the child welfare system, a significant difference compared to the general foster care population. The CASA program also results in significant savings in child welfare expenses. CASA volunteers save hundreds of millions of dollars in child welfare costs alone. U.S. federal law requires that juvenile and family courts appoint a GAL, which could be be an attorney or CASA/GAL volunteer, in all cases of child abuse and neglect.
Ms. Adams continues, “There is no doubt about it, the CASA program is successful. Our volunteers act as a safeguard for our children, regardless of the environment in which the child may be living. Whether the child is in foster care or is moved back to the original home, the CASA is still involved in his or her life. The CASA makes a lifelong impact, and typically remains in the child’s life into adulthood. We have seen this time and time again.”
In one particular case, the CASA volunteer advocate made the difference between life and death for one little boy. Zach was only 10 years old when his mother passed away, and he lived in foster care for several months due to his father’s inability to care for him. It was during this time that he met Melinda, his CASA volunteer, and they spent much time together, learning about one another and building trust. When Zach returned to live with his dad, Melinda continued to be there, supporting him emotionally, talking to him regularly and helping him however she could. One night, at home, Zach discovered his dad lying on the floor unconscious. In his panicked state, while trying to call 911, he misdialed and called 991, repeatedly. Thankfully, he realized he had one number memorized and called his CASA volunteer advocate, Melinda.
“Melinda was so glad that she was able to answer Zach’s call and direct him how to reach emergency authorities,” continues Ms. Adams. “She then arrived at Zach’s father’s house and took Zach to the hospital while they waited for results from the doctor. She was so thankful she could be there for Zach and help the entire family.”
During the time Zach’s dad was in the hospital, Melinda continued to stay by his side. Once his father returned home, Zach was happily reunited with his father. Because of Melinda and Zach’s strong bond of trust through weekly phone calls and visits, Zach had memorized her number and felt safe calling her. He knew that if he called, she would answer. Most certainly, Zach’s quick response and Melinda’s unyielding bond with him saved his dad’s life.
Last year, more than 76,000 CASA and GAL volunteers helped more than 251,000 abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes nationwide. Becoming a CASA volunteer requires an investment of time and energy. However, the most important component in serving is heart.Kim Bailey, a Collin County CASA volunteer for 12 years (one of Collin County’s Top Ten Women in 2015), agrees. Ms. Bailey’s passion for CASA originated from her desire to help abused and neglected children find the opportunity to have a long and authentic impact. She explains, “If you could see the circumstances from which these children emerge, the need for involvement is self-evident. The CASA volunteer functions as an extra set of eyes and ears to the court and is involved in observing and assessing all aspects of the foster child’s life, including family, school, daycare, medical care, foster home life and providing written reports to the court advocating for the best interests of the child. CASA volunteers are often the only constant in these children’s lives. It is incredibly important.”
As Collin County continues to grow, all things related to it expand as well, including abuse and neglect. Ms. Adams notes, “We must increase our service ability for the program. We do not want any child to not have a CASA, so we enlist help and inform everyone we know about becoming a CASA. We have many volunteers, but as with anything in life, some are transferred to other cities or some have life changes and are no longer able to serve. We are proactive to recruit additional volunteers to serve and help.”
To become a CASA volunteer, many believe that a social work background or legal expertise is needed. However, volunteers of all walks of life and experiences are accepted. Individuals must be at least 21 years old, pass the background screening and provide references. Volunteers must be willing to complete a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training and observe court proceedings. They also must be willing to commit to the CASA program for at least 12 months and make themselves available for court appearances with advance notice.
While some may feel ill-equipped to become a CASA volunteer or do not physically have time to serve because of prior commitments, other opportunities exist to help fight against child abuse. On Sat., April 16, the Collin County CASA will hold its 16th Annual Voice for Children Gala, entitled “There’s No Place Like Home,” at the beautiful InterContinental Dallas. A magical and elegant evening is planned following the yellow brick road back to Oz. Live music, fine dining, a live auction, a short message and late night fun is planned for the event, both on the dance floor and in the casino. “Every year, this is a fantastic event, and it usually sells out! It is a wonderful opportunity for Collin County CASA as a fundraiser, but even more, it is just a magical time! Everything is completely decked-out and so beautiful,” adds Ms. Adams. “We understand that many individuals do not have the time or ability to be available for a 12-month commitment, so this is a fun way to get involved.”
Overall, helping those in need and providing comfort brings an overwhelming sense of hope and satisfaction. By supporting CASA in whatever means possible, individuals help fight against child abuse in all of our communities. Together, we can work to ensure that every Collin County child knows the joys of a safe and forever home. Collin County CASA’s next training opportunity is tentatively scheduled for April 30. For more information, contact Debi Williams at 972.529.2272, ext. 117, or email [email protected]