Article originally appeared in LA Parent, October 25, 2013
I am a CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, and I advocate for abused and neglected children in the foster care system. The CASA program was established 35 years ago in Seattle, by dependency judge David Soukup, who realized that he needed more information than what was being provided by attorneys and social workers to make decisions about the future of the foster children coming before him in court. So he asked the community to help him out by volunteering their time, and about
100 people did just that. Today there are 955 programs nationwide, with more than 75,000 citizen advocates who are appointed by the court to investigate circumstances of children in foster care.
Los Angeles County has more than 25,000 children in the dependency court system. Social workers typically carry an average of 30-40 cases, and they are expected to visit each child once a month. The attorneys’ caseloads are even worse. They average about 160 cases per attorney, which can mean up to 280-300 children. This is why CASA volunteers are so important. A CASA volunteer is assigned only one case, and can focus all their time and attention on just one child’s needs.
As a CASA volunteer, you visit the child you are assigned at least once a month and get to know that child. You interview all the parties involved in the child’s case – teachers, doctors, foster parents, therapists, social workers – and write a report based on the information you collect. Don’t worry. You get all the training you need to be able to do this correctly. You are also assigned a Senior Program Coordinator who will supervise and guide you throughout the whole time you are assigned to your child.
As a CASA, your main objective is to act in the best interest of the child at all times. You become the dedicated eyes and ears for a dependency court judge. Your main concern is not why your child is in the foster care system, but what information the court needs to know to make decisions on behalf of your child and what services need to be provided – a better place to live, therapy for special-needs kids, tutoring in school, ect. – so that your child can thrive and have a stable environment.
I became a volunteer about eight months ago and I cannot begin to express what an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience this has been for me. Through the extensive training about the dependency court system and the ongoing seminars provided by CASA regarding foster children and all their emotional and physical needs; such as recognition of physical characteristics in children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the challenges they will face in the future, and learning about symptoms and behaviors associated with exposure to trauma so that I can get them the proper help they need; I have become well informed and learned firsthand the hardship that these children have gone through. But armed with my education and dedication, I know that I can at least make a difference in one child’s life.
Imagine being a child and having to live with parents who have not been giving you proper nutritional, educational, medical and caring attention, and now through no fault of your own you are separated from the only home and parents you know and placed in a foster care system. These children are all alone, perhaps separated from their siblings, having to figure out life. It is heart breaking to imagine the emotional toll this takes on these kids. But for all the tragedy, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Several foster kids were guest speakers during our CASA training, and it is so inspiring to see them having succeeded in life and become productive and compassionate members of the community. So if you think you would like to be a hero in a child’s life and can spare just a few hours a month to change a life, please check out our Los Angeles CASA chapter (www.casala.org) and let others know about this amazing opportunity. With all that you do for your kids, reach out to those who do not have the same privilege of growing up in a loving and nurturing home like yours.