November 03, 2020

How the UTEP/CASA Program Benefits Students, Children and Families, and the Legal Profession

by Lisa J Soto, A. Vianey Martinez, C. Mariel Yepo, Alan Tellez Berkowitz, Juan Martinez, and Mildred Alvarez Grajeda

“The UTEP/CASA Collaborative experience has given me a newfound appreciation for the work attorneys do and has buttressed my decision to go to law school and pursue a career in the law no matter how challenging it will be.”[1]

In 2010, The University of Texas at El Paso and the Court Appointed Special Advocates of El Paso created the UTEP/CASA Collaborative, an undergraduate clinical education program for prelaw students through the UTEP Patti and Paul Yetter Center for Law.[2] In this program, aspiring law students take a year-long children’s rights law and advocacy course coupled with guided fieldwork as CASAs. At its 10-year mark, the program proves to have significant benefits to students, the legal profession, and children and families in the system.

Benefits for Undergraduate and Law Students

Introducing students to the legal field

The program gives students access to the legal profession. Many undergraduate students enter the program without ever personally knowing an attorney. One student explains: “The UTEP/CASA Collaborative exposed me to the legal profession and helped me grow as an individual. As a first-generation college student, this amazing experience allowed me to explore career options that I did not think were possible to attain.”[3] Students meaningfully interact with and learn from attorneys as they participate in a case from start to finish. The interactions serve as a form of mentorship, which is widely valued in the legal profession.[4]

The experience gives students firsthand insight into courtroom procedures, legal concepts, and the life of a case, unlike mere theory from a book. Current law students who participated in the UTEP/CASA Collaborative attest that the program helped improve communication skills; increase confidence; build compassion and sensitivity toward others; sharpen skills for law school writing, classes, and clinics; and engender a desire to “give back” to those in need and those coming through higher education behind them.[5]

One attorney said the program gave him two important building blocks for becoming an effective attorney: practical experiences and mentorship. Before his first hearing as an attorney years ago and during many “firsts” in practice, he often thought back to his CASA experience, which helped build his confidence and reminded him “You’ve done it before. You can do it again.”

Providing an appreciation for public service

The CASA experience emphasizes the importance of public service and pro bono work, as access to justice often correlates with the access to financial means. One law student explained that pro bono work “is vital and usually the last line of protection for someone trying to maintain a minimum level of basic needs but cannot afford to secure legal representation.”[6] The UTEP/CASA Collaborative experience highlights the need to address derivative issues of systemic and cyclical problems such as poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse; it reveals the dangers of analyzing issues in morally dichotomous ways, because social disadvantages affect segments of the population disproportionately. Finally, while helping these children in difficult circumstances, student CASAs witness the power of resilience and carry that with them as a motivator in law school.

Providing opportunities to offer information to the court

Student CASAs gain experience writing reports and giving testimony that provides valuable information to the court about the children. All of the CASA teams’ information and progress in the cases is documented for the court in the reports. Student CASAs receive classroom training on admissible testimony and evidentiary matters, including maintaining confidential communications and being sensitive to privacy concerns, which is critical when they are called to testify to protect children’s and families’ privacy.

Benefits for Children and Families in the System

Meeting children where they are

Given the age proximity between the student CASAs and the children they serve, the student CASAs have a unique ability to connect with children and build trust relationships.[7] Student CASAs often break the ice with teens over discussions about topics they relate to and understand. With younger children, student CASAs use interactive activities, such as playing with Play Doh, making bracelets, playing soccer, or coloring.

With all of the children, student CASAs focus on the importance of education and thinking about the future. Student CASAs usually spend part of their visits reading with the children, doing homework, talking about school, trying to understand their needs, and providing positive and encouraging feedback. For many children, student CASAs work through special education meetings with the school teams to ask questions and further communicate the children’s needs, helping connect them to tools, services, and accommodations that foster better engagement and performance in school. In some cases, the resulting behavioral support provides more constructive handling of disciplinary issues that keep the students moving forward in school rather instead of punishing them for their reactions to traumatic events. As a natural consequence of this level of interaction and support, students become role models to the children, who start talking about how they might want to go to college just like their CASA.

Connecting with children’s language and culture

Because UTEP’s student population represents the community’s demographics, the Collaborative’s CASAs closely align with the culture and language of the children and families in the system. Approximately 81% of the student CASAs in the program’s 10-year history are Latino, with 100% of the current year’s students (2019-20) Latino (and most of them English/Spanish bilingual). In comparison, approximately 62% of CASA volunteers in the El Paso community this service year are Latino and approximately 40% of the attorneys in the El Paso community working on CPS cases are Latino.[8] This year, of those children in the system who have CASA representation, 80% are Latino, and Spanish is the preferred language for many of those children, parents, and family members.[9] For every student CASA team, the UTEP/CASA Collaborative has at least one team member who speaks Spanish. For the cases in which none of the students speak Spanish, the professor or supervisory team steps in directly to help.

Not speaking with a person in their preferred language creates a barrier when trying to elicit their needs, wants, and worries. Cultural Competence in Child Welfare: What Is It? How Do We Achieve It? What Happens Without It? emphasizes how important cultural competence is when serving a child’s needs through difficult circumstances.[10] McPhatter explains that cultural incompetence often results in an incomplete understanding of what a child is going through and can result in misrepresenting or misunderstanding the child’s needs.[11] By not speaking the language or understanding cultural fundamentals, workers in another study experienced engagement barriers.[12] Using an intermediary, i.e., an interpreter or translator, provides room for error in the translation or confusion since the intermediary is only there to help transmit the information rather than build rapport with the individuals.[13] The UTEP/CASA Collaborative teams often communicate with children and families in Spanish, which builds rapport and leads to more effective communication and advocacy.

Supporting permanency planning

One of the CASA’s most critical responsibilities is contributing to permanency planning.[14] A study that evaluated permanency outcomes for children in the Fulton County CASA program in Atlanta, Georgia found that by recruiting advocates who reflect the demographics of the children, are attuned to the children’s reality and culture, and advocate for services for the children and families they work with, CASA volunteers facilitate permanency for the children in a manner that meets their needs and helps stabilize their families.[15] The study supported previous research showing children with CASAs had a greater chance of reunifying with their families than those without CASAs (family reunification being in the children’s best interest).[16]

This finding is highly evident in the UTEP/CASA Collaborative. Students work diligently to find creative solutions to support the family in an effort to return children to their homes and, more importantly, build sustainable reunifications. With the benefit of a multidisciplinary CASA team advocating for the child’s best interest (a professor who is an attorney, a licensed professional counselor, and the CASA supervisor), student CASAs have helped CPS and families tailor parent service plans to individual family needs, such as finding parenting class opportunities for parenting children with mental health issues. This way, parents can better understand certain disabilities and strategies to effectively handle and deescalate behaviors manifesting from those disabilities. Student CASAs have located therapy services that can serve families in their homes, so parents receive real-time parenting help, creating structure and establishing healthy authority and disciplinary techniques in their home environments where they have to put the theory into practice. These therapy services often also help parents address their own problems and issues.

CASA of El Paso shares that in this year alone (2019-20), “student CASAs have stood out to advocate for educational accommodations for children with increased needs, request formal medication reviews, push for afterschool programs to provide positive anger and energy outlets, fight for better transition plans for children within their families, and persist with attorneys to achieve access to parents and effective representation for children.”[17]

Handling larger family cases

Because the UTEP/CASA Collaborative uses a multidisciplinary team approach, most cases assigned to student CASAs involve large sibling groups, often in multiple placements, which would otherwise be difficult to cover by a single CASA volunteer, CPS caseworker, and the attorneys. In these large sibling groups, each child has daycare, school, or both; therapy, medical, and other service appointments; and various interactions with siblings and parents. Student CASAs can cover gaps in observing children in these multiple settings. Moreover, with the team approach, during a single visit, one student may speak with a caregiver, provider, or foster parent, while the other student interacts with the children. This allows the student CASAs to make the most of limited time and improves their ability to help children and families access the supports they need.

Since the undergraduate student CASAs are taking a class and are on a path toward becoming attorneys, they adhere to a rigorous set of time demands when engaging with the children on their cases.[18] The more interactions CASAs have with the children, the stronger their bonds become and the more openly they communicate with each other, bringing additional insight and information to cases.

Benefits for the Legal Profession

Inspiring future lawyers and supporting diversity

The benefits for the profession as a whole transcend the benefits for individual participants. In addition to being majority minority, many of the UTEP/CASA Collaborative student CASAs are first-generation college students. Their experiences in the program have helped draw them into the profession or affirm their desire to go to law school, thus contributing diversity to the profession.

Practicing attorneys who were once a part of the UTEP/CASA Collaborative echo the sentiments of current student CASAs.[19] Through the Collaborative, many learned for the first time what it meant to be an attorney and to communicate professionally in that context. They learned what loyalty to a client entails, how important the process is in addition to the result, and how to be by their clients’ side to help them put their best foot forward. The program taught them that legal training and a law license is an honor and a responsibility, providing the ability to change people’s lives and give a voice to those who lack one. Many entered the profession viewing pro bono as an obligation to the community and sought workplaces that practiced public service work or highly valued pro bono work.

Conclusion

The UTEP/CASA Collaborative provides experiential learning for all involved – student CASAs, supervisors, professors, attorneys, children, and others. It produces empathetic attorneys with great cultural capital to bring to the legal profession. The program advocates for more advocates by expanding the CASA program into prelaw clinical education. The proven effectiveness of hands-on experiences and mentorship shines in the undergraduate students as they learn from attorneys in the field and in the future attorneys they become who give back to those entering the profession.

Lisa J Soto, JD, University of Texas School of Law, is an associate clinical professor at UTEP’s Center for Law and started the Children’s Rights Law and Advocacy course. A. Vianey Martinez is a recent UTEP graduate and a rising 1L at University of Texas School of Law. C. Mariel Yepo is a recent UTEP graduate and a rising 1L at Baylor Law School. The remaining authors are upperclassmen or graduating students at UTEP and soon-to-be law students. All of the authors are in the 2019-2020 Children’s Rights Law and Advocacy course.

Endnotes

[1] A.V. Martinez: see authors’ note.

[2] The UTEP Center for Law and the Law School Preparation Institute Founder/Director William Weaver are grateful to Lisa Saucedo for working with Lisa Soto to design and form the UTEP/CASA Collaborative. Ms. Saucedo remains the Chief Executive Officer of CASA of El Paso to date.

[3] Katie Tepezano is rising 2L at Kansas University School of Law.

[4] See e.g, Cotter, Dan. “The Benefits of Mentoring,” available at www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/publications/tyl/topics/mentoring/benefits-of-mentoring/; Kilgore, Jennifer Kain. “Why You Need a Mentor and Where to Find One,” available at www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/publications/tyl/topics/mentoring/why-you-need-a-mentor-and-where-to-find-one/.

[5] The following law students and recent law school graduates provided content to help develop this article: Eden Klein (graduating from University of Texas School of Law and working for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid), Michael Samaniego (rising 3L at Texas Tech School of Law), and Katie Tepezano (rising 2L at Kansas University School of Law).

[6] Michael Samaniego is a rising 3L at Texas Tech School of Law.

[7]The median age of CASA volunteers in the El Paso community is in the late 30s according to CASA of El Paso demographic information about CASA volunteers from August 20, 2019 to April 30, 2020.

[8] UTEP Center for Law demographic information regarding the UTEP/CASA Collaborative from the August 2010 cohort to the present (note that approximately 9% of the student CASAs’ ethnicity is unknown); CASA of El Paso demographic information about CASA volunteers from August 20, 2019 to April 30, 2020; April 2020 65th District Court child and parent attorney list and El Paso County Attorney CPS practice group attorneys (note that approximately 20% of attorneys’ ethnicity is unknown).

[9] CASA of El Paso demographic information regarding children served from August 20, 2019 to April 30, 2020.

[10] McPhatter, Anna R. “Cultural Competence in Child Welfare: What Is It? How Do We Achieve It? What Happens Without It?” Child Welfare 76(1), Jan. 1997, 255.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Maiter, Sarah, et al. “Trial and Error: Attending to Language Barriers in Child Welfare Service Provision from the Perspective of Frontline Workers.” Child & Family Social Work 1, 2017, 165.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Maiter, 2017, 65.

[15] Felicia J. Tuggle. An Exploratory Study: An Outcome Evaluation of the Fulton County, (Atlanta) Georgia CASA Program, 33, 2005, available at www.semanticscholar.org/paper/An-exploratory-study%3A-an-outcome-evaluation-of-the-Tuggle/2f2203f285d0329de807cf236629c005e51ea88f.

[16] Ibid, 32.

[17] Nancy McMahon, Previous CASA Supervisor to the UTEP/CASA Collaborative and current Team Leader at CASA of El Paso, March 2020.

[18]In the UTEP/CASA Collaborative this service year, the CASA of El Paso supervisor Ely Chavez reports that student CASA teams together spent four-and-a-half to over six times more hours on each case than the average single CASA.

[19] The following attorneys provided content to help develop this article: Claudia Aranda (Deputy Public Defender, El Paso County Public Defender’s Office; The Ohio State Moritz College of Law graduate), Richard Sapien (associate at Gunderson Dettmer’s San Diego office; Stanford Law School graduate); Johnathon P. Bramble (associate at Morgan Lewis’s Houston office; University of Texas School of Law graduate), Rogelio Reyes (associate at Jones Day’s Dallas office; University of Texas School of Law graduate), and Omar De La Rosa (Assistant City Attorney for the City of El Paso; graduate of The Ohio State Moritz College of Law).