Written by Nicolette Elzie
“Give a child a voice”- this mantra rings through the minds of volunteers speaking up in court. Despite the emotional toll this line of work can take, volunteers are working to resolve cases of child abuse.
These volunteers are officially called Court-Appointed Special Advocates, but at the Lily Pad Center in downtown Albany they abbreviate their titles to CASA. On any given day, the volunteers at Dougherty CASA are advocating in court the cases of nearly 90 children. They are responsible for investigating both proven and alleged cases of neglect or abuse and work in conjunction with the juvenile court system in an effort to ensure safe and permanent homes for every child under their care.
Every day across the country, approximately 2,000 children become victims of abuse or neglect. There are 400,000 children in the foster care system today who do not have a CASA volunteer working on their case. Similar statistics inspired Judge David Soukup of Seattle, WA to conceive the idea for the first CASA program back in 1977. At the time, over half a million children were in the foster care system and he felt there was a need for more ground-level information about the child abuse cases he was ruling on.
Based upon Judge Soukup’s original idea, the CASA program is founded upon the principle of volunteers from the community coming together to provide the court system an unbiased objective perspective on a child’s status. As such, the program relies heavily on its volunteers to function properly.
A CASA volunteer is crucial to quicker resolutions of cases within the juvenile court system. The volunteer conducts interviews with the child in question and performs in-home observations in cases of alleged abuse where they ensure that the child’s basic needs are being met such as food and proper clothing. Additionally, a volunteer will perform random check-ups on school attendance and grades.
A volunteer’s work on an individual case can decrease the amount of time a child spends in the foster care system. When the case is presented in court, the reports submitted by a child’s CASA volunteer could help the judge make more sound and quick judgments. On average, a child spends close to 3 years living in a foster home, whereas with those cases assigned a CASA volunteer the average time can drop to roughly half. This focus on providing stability in a child’s life saves the nation about $50 million dollars, money that would otherwise have gone toward the foster system.
Due to the varying time a child’s case may take to be resolved, they can be moved from foster home to foster home during the transition. Typically the one consistent face a child sees throughout this tumultuous time is the CASA volunteer working on their case.
Dougherty CASA is part of a national network of more than 930 programs across the country. Within the last year alone, collaborative efforts of each branch have helped close to 240,000 children find permanent homes.
Today, Dougherty CASA advocates for 84 child victims with 22 of those children currently living in temporary foster homes as far as 3 hours away. The program is feeling the weight of their caseload with only 22 volunteers and 3 staff members to handle it all. So a paradox emerges; the program needs more volunteers, yet has been forced to place recruitment on the back burner in order to effectively serve all the children. With a recruitment event coming up in late January, the program hopes to nearly double their number of active volunteers.
Six months ago, Dougherty CASA held a recruitment event to draw those interested in the advocate position into their training course. Of the 25 people who showed up to the event, CASA successfully trained and retained 4 new recruits. However, despite gaining those 4 new recruits, which brought the volunteer force to just over 30, the number of active volunteers has since dropped by almost a third with some volunteers taking a temporary leave of absence from the program. One of the biggest hurdles volunteers face is the time commitment they must make to the program.
In order to be eligible to become a CASA volunteer, candidates must be at least 21 and attend training 2 nights a week for 5 weeks. They must also achieve 10 court observation hours before being sworn in by Juvenile Court Judge Herbie Soloman. The average time a volunteer spends participating in service training once a month, meeting face-to-face with their assigned cases, and making court appearances averages to about 20 hours a month. Program manager Holli Reksten understands the time commitment can be demanding. She keeps this in mind when planning monthly training in an attempt to make volunteering less of a challenge. “We tread lightly, because we don’t want to lose any of our volunteers. Because of that we limit mandatory attendance and try to make our service training available remotely,” says Reksten.
In order to be effective, volunteers must be able to commit to an 18-month contract because that is about how long court proceedings can take. However, this timeframe can vary depending upon the resolution of all a volunteer’s cases. At Dougherty CASA, volunteers are currently averaging 3 cases each. Additionally, with 22 of their cases temporarily living too far to reasonably ask a volunteer to take on, Reksten and her two staff members have assumed the responsibility of those cases. “We do appreciate our volunteers’ time so we do not ask them to drive out that far. The important thing is to be a consistent driving force in the children’s lives,” says Reksten.
The goal of CASA is to be a reliable influence in each child’s life and ensure that children are being provided with their basic needs in a safe and caring home. However, despite the need for more volunteers, the program understands that not everyone can afford the time to volunteer. “With very little effort, a person can really have a positive impact in a child’s life,” says Reksten.
Providing monetary support is an alternative to making the CASA commitment.
“Community awareness is as much a hurdle for us to overcome as is the time commitment required of our volunteers,” says Reksten. Reksten seeks to participate in community fairs, speak to organizations and participate in Albany Police Department functions in order to draw attention to the upcoming recruitment date.