CASA advocates make life better for children
Post Independent Contributor
The families of children involved in Dependency and Neglect (D&N) cases face a long road through an intimidating and confusing legal system. The Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, which helps many of these families by providing volunteer advocates for children, has a relatively new presence in Colorado’s 9th Judicial District. CASA of the Ninth serves Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties by training and supporting volunteer advocates. Its mission is to find a safe, permanent home for every child it serves.
Numerous professionals, including attorneys, guardians ad litem (a person the court appoints to represent the best interests of a child) and social workers, have roles in child welfare cases. But children can get lost in the legal and social service system. High caseloads make it difficult to gather adequate information and can leave children languishing in inappropriate placements. CASA’s voice speaks for the child and provides more complete information to those who make these critical decisions and helps achieve better long-term solutions.
A Seattle family court judge — who was concerned about making drastic, life-changing decisions for children without adequate information — conceived of the volunteer citizen advocate idea in 1977. That idea grew into what is now a network of 950 CASA programs in 49 states.
Barbra Corcoran, who joined CASA of the Ninth as executive director in February, explained that child abuse or neglect is the direct cause of most D&N cases, and the majority involve adults who have substance abuse problems. But the roots run deeper: Adults whose lives are out of control do not set out to abuse or neglect their children; they’re often replaying scenarios they experienced as children.
The 9th District has about 30 active D&N cases at any given time. That may not seem to indicate a sizeable problem; however, most people outside the child welfare system are not aware that the average time for case resolution — from the date the county attorney files a D&N petition to finding a safe, permanent home for the child (not a foster home) — is 18 months. A CASA volunteer stays with a case through its resolution and works with only one family at a time. Corcoran pointed out that advocates have to familiarize themselves with a family’s case history, and that may include hundreds of pages of records. She also said CASA and other advocacy organizations have helped steer the child welfare system to more “front loading,” providing services to help keep families from getting into a D&N situation.
CASA of the Ninth, which now has four advocates serving a total of nine children, seeks to train 10 new volunteers each year and to place an advocate with every D&N child by 2016.
Community interest in the lives of families involved in the child welfare system is a matter of public health as well as compassion. In 1995, Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.
Over 17,000 Kaiser Permanente HMO members undergoing a comprehensive physical exam voluntarily provided detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. Long-term follow-up shows a correlation between two or more such experiences and future occurrences of chronic illness and social dysfunction. These data, which have been the basis for more than 50 scientific articles and numerous conferences and workshops, help us understand the roots of some of the nation’s serious health and social problems, especially those that are multi-generational.
CASA IS PART OF THE SOLUTION
No specific experience is required to be a CASA advocate, but volunteers commit to 30 hours of training provided by the organization. Graphic designer Valerie Miller said her inspiration to volunteer was an article describing how children who have more caring adults in their lives are more likely to thrive as children and adults. She is currently working with her first CASA family and said the organization gives her the opportunity to make life better for children.
A CASA volunteer’s first job is to listen. Advocates listen to the children they serve but also seek discussions with relatives and other community members who know and care about the child, such as teachers, caregivers and neighbors. Miller pointed out that grandparents, especially, can be a very important part of child welfare cases and often provide a measure of stability for children who are experiencing tumultuous times. She said she was nervous the first time she called a child’s grandparent to set up a meeting but that so far, extended-family members have been happy to have her involved.
Colorado’s state CASA organization has recently embarked on a long-term study of outcomes, but multiple previous studies have found that children who have a CASA advocate spend less time in foster care, do better in school, and score higher in areas such as valuing achievement and developing the ability to resolve differences with others.
Corcoran explained that “citizens should have a role in speaking for children, but we must do this with others in the system who have many years of expertise.” CASA provides a bridge between the experts and the community that helps everyone do what is best for the children.
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