So what kind of person typically volunteers as a CASA?
Most are looking for deeper levels of engagement than your typical volunteer experience provides. They’re also looking for something that is intellectually challenging, a learning experience. CASA volunteers learn a lot of new things, and they get to apply them in a very hands-on way that has immediate impact on children who need help the most.
We have a lot of work to do to reach specific markets, though. For example, we have a lot of babies placed in caregiver families that are monolingual Spanish. So we have a deep need for people with Spanish-language skills who can work with families where language is a barrier.
What are your goals for this fiscal year and beyond?
This year, the very aggressive goal we set for ourselves is to serve 1,000 kids with intensive advocacy, as well as provide support and encouragement to another 5,000 children on the days of their court appearances. It’s important to demonstrate what it takes to serve a thousand kids a year because the next challenge will be to scale it up even further. We’re in a county where the need is staggering—there are 27,000 kids in the foster care system, and we’re only helping the first thousand. So longer term, we’d like to be a program that is advocating for 5,000 kids and has a $5-10 million budget. For the size of the problem and the size of the community, that would be a reasonable scale.
How do you envision serving 1,000 children a year?
After three years of studying it very carefully, we now know that pretty much every additional 100 children we serve requires one new staff member. A staff person can support 50 volunteers, more or less, at any given time, and those volunteers in turn can each support two children. So we’ve budgeted for additional staffing, and we’ve also budgeted for taking infrastructure to scale so we’re able to accommodate a larger number of people, because we learned that if we increase the level of activity in any given area, it increases support across the board.
And what about quality improvements to go along with those higher service levels?
We’re all in agreement on the value of an interested adult in a child’s life, but in this data-driven, evidenced-based environment, we have to be able to report real impact to our donors, so we’re taking a leadership role in figuring out what exactly we need to measure. We spent the last two years working with some folks at the USC School of Social Work to implement a case assessment survey that aggregated data directly from CASAs about where they were making progress. It told us that the top four areas of advocacy are education, mental health, placement, and developmental needs. And now that we know that those are the key areas of endeavor, we’re working to figure out the best outcomes to track so we can demonstrate the impact we’re having.
We’ve talked a lot in quantifiable terms about the changes that have taken place over the last few years, but how do you feel the spirit of the organization has changed?
I feel we as an organization have demonstrated—not just to others but to ourselves—that we have tremendous capacity to help more children. And we’ve also learned what the unit of growth is and what it takes to put it in place. So we’re moving forward for the first time not completely blind, and that’s a very different position. For me, last year was a genuine turning point, because I don’t think it was until we had the results from 2013 that we understood what we were actually capable of. We’re much more self-confident.
What hasn’t changed?
None of this would be happening if there weren’t people in this community willing to show up for these kids. That is a human force that is almost beyond measure. The shear force and impact of someone being willing to show up, it just blows away any kind of hard measure, and that’s what keeps many of us coming back.
At the end of the day, these children are our children. They are our community’s responsibility. Our tax dollars go toward providing that system that so many of us say is broken, but the buck stops here. If we aren’t willing to do something about it, who will?
Click here to return to part one of the interview with Executive Director Dilys Tosteson Garcia. http://www.casala.org/fy13part1