May 19, 2017 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight | Speaking for the Best Interests of the Child

Kansas CASAs Provide a Valuable Link to the Court

By Anne Woods
Kansas CASA Gallery

Kansas CASA Gallery

Introduction

In 2016, 6,900 children in Kansas were residents in temporary and sometimes permanent foster care. What happens next to these children involves a long process. Each child will most likely already have a caseworker from the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services. Caseworkers in Kansas assist an average caseload of 60-90 children at a time. This makes it virtually impossible for a caseworker to provide all the services each child needs and complete reports, appear in court, and coordinate services for the family.

Forty years ago, a judge in Seattle, Washington created the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. Judge David Soukup noticed that he did not have enough information to make decisions about the best interests of abused or neglected children. As a result, he designed a program to train adult volunteers to help a child by speaking for their best interests. Since that time, forty-nine states have adopted CASA or similar programs.

In Kansas, CASA started in 1981 in Wichita; today, the Kansas CASA Association comprises twenty-three community-based programs throughout the state that recruit, train, and support citizen-volunteers to advocate in court for the best interests of abused or neglected children. In 2014, 789 Kansas CASA volunteers served 1,841 children. In 2016, CASA programs saw a 4% increase in the number of children served. Last year, 1,994 children were served by 915 volunteers. In addition, in 2016, high turnover in caseworkers created a challenge for CASAs to receive the communication needed to serve the child. In response, CASA programs have been proactive and have requested regularly scheduled meetings with caseworker supervisors to stay in the loop on case plans.

 

Who Pays for a CASA?

The CASA program is designed to utilize volunteers so that costs are minimal compared to what it would cost to hire advocates. It is estimated that the value of one hour provided by a CASA is $20.88. Each year, over one million dollars in services are donated by CASAs. There are several partners that work with Kansas CASA to provide funding for the program. The funding is primarily used for training new volunteers. In 2017, the Kansas Bar Foundation through its IOLTA program provided $10,000 to help CASA increase the number of staff and trained volunteers. The Douglas County CASA training curriculum for CASA volunteers is one of ten in the U.S. to participate in the piloting of a new National CASA training program.

In 2015, three partners donated the CASA Bug, a VW Bug used to attend various events that help promote and engage volunteer recruitments. It is basically a moving billboard.

 

Who Can Be a CASA?

In order to be a CASA, a volunteer must be at least 21 years old and attend a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training. Part of the training includes observing court hearings and learning about the social service system. A criminal background check is conducted on anyone interested in being a CASA. Once a volunteer has received training, passed a background check, and has been approved by the court to advocate for the best interest of children, he or she is assigned a family to assist.

 

The Next Steps…

Here are some of the things a CASA does to assist the court in making decisions:

  • Gather InformationA CASA will begin by reviewing documents and records and then interview the children, family members, and professionals in their lives.
  • Document:  A CASA must document the visits, information, and records received.
  • Appear in Court:  The CASA will be notified of court hearings. At times, the CASA may be asked to provide testimony or information.
  • Help the Children Understand What Is Going On:  Court is often confusing and intimidating to a child. The CASA is there to explain what is happening and to ease the stress the child may have about being in court.
  • Continuity:  A CASA provides a consistent voice for the child. He or she helps others involved understand the services that are in place and/or what else may be needed.
  • Keep the Court Informed:  A CASA monitors the plan established by the Court and keeps written reports on the developments in the child’s life.
  • Build Rapport with the Child:  The CASA is able to work with the child throughout the duration of the case. The child can feel secure knowing that one adult is always watching out for his or her best interest.

Success Stories

 

A CASA provides services for children, but also looks for resources for parents.

GeorgeAnn, a new CASA volunteer, was assigned to three young children, ages one, two, and three. The children were brought to the attention of the court due to malnourishment and low weight. The children also were found to be developmentally behind.  GeorgeAnn went to work and immediately gathered resources to assist the foster parents in caring for the children. She also developed a special relationship with the children and visited them frequently. The parents of the children were particularly wary of the child welfare system, having been children in the system themselves. They refused to work with the service providers and made excuses for their lack of progress. GeorgeAnn knew that to help these children, she had to also work closely with the parents. GeorgeAnn helped ease fears the parents had and helped them identify and access resources by building a trusting relationship through frequent contact.

The children and parents began to work with the service providers, many of whom GeorgeAnn had recommended specifically for the family. Over time, the children gained weight and caught up with their peers developmentally. The parents learned how to care for the children and manage their time and resources. The children have now gone home to their parents and are thriving in their parents’ care.

 

A CASA dedicates seven years to assist a child as he ages out of state custody.

From 2008 through 2015, CASA volunteer Jane was assigned to Edgar, a boy who had already been in foster care for 7 years, with 12 different placements and two failed attempts at adoption. Edgar’s Asperger’s diagnosis, combined with mental health issues, made finding a permanent home very difficult. Jane devoted over 1,100 hours and drove over 11,000 miles to visit Edgar in his placements and advocate for his best interests. Often, the drive was so far that she’d have to spend the night at a hotel and drive back the next day. She paid all expenses herself and took advantage of those opportunities to see him on both days of the trip.

 During his final year in state custody, Edgar’s team began planning and preparing for him to “age out” of the child welfare system. Because of his disabilities, he would need to transfer to the adult welfare system. During a time of very high social worker turnover, Jane’s constant presence in Edgar’s life and the trust he placed in her were so important. During those final months, Jane’s advocacy was key to getting him out of an abusive foster home, putting him in touch with a former social worker that was interested in being his legal guardian, and eventually moving him to Topeka, where he is currently thriving in housing and services for disabled adults. Jane continues to meet with Edgar and is his friend for life.

 

A CASA works with several family members to create a positive environment for a young child.

Janet served on the case of a one-year-old boy, Elijah, who was brought into foster care after he was left in the care of someone at a domestic violence center and his mother never returned. Dealing with addiction and resulting criminal charges, his mother had often left Elijah in the care of her mother, which is luckily where he was placed for the duration of his time in the state’s custody.

The grandmother did not have the means to support her grandson, however, and struggled with maintaining healthy boundaries with Elijah’s mother as well. Janet built an extremely positive relationship with the grandmother, helped her find resources in the community, and encouraged her in advocating for herself throughout the court process. Even with two significant incidents that threatened Elijah’s health and safety, the CASA was able to maintain a supportive relationship with the family while also finding out the details of each situation and encouraging better future behavior.

As the mother continued to struggle with sobriety and criminal charges, the case went to adoption. Janet’s advocacy was critical to the outcome, with the grandmother formally adopting Elijah after nearly two years in custody. Janet encouraged a part-time job for the grandmother, which she was able to maintain and which helped keep Elijah in her home. Janet also befriended the extended family and felt confident that they would continue to support Elijah and his grandmother. Janet was invited to take part in his adoption celebration with the entire family. On that adoption day, as he bopped around the court room in his formal vest and tie outfit, the whole family celebrated Elijah finding a permanent home with his grandma.

Special thanks to Mickey Edwards, State Director, KANSAS CASA Association

Anne Woods

Public Services Director and IOLTA State Director

Anne Woods is the Public Services Director and IOLTA State Director of the Kansas Bar Association and Kansas Bar Foundation.