One of the most consistent people in the life of a child or youth in foster care is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASAs are volunteers appointed to be a voice for a child, teen, or sibling group in court. While case workers, judges, and even foster families might change, a CASA can be a consistent friend for a child or teen in foster care. It is a relationship that can last a lifetime.
A Voice for Children in Court
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) speaks up for children and teens in foster care. In their volunteer role, CASAs gather all information possible from all parties involved in a foster care case. Each month, they spend time with the children and teens they represent. They build a relationship so they can understand the child’s wishes for their future.
CASAs conduct additional research. They interview teachers, case workers, pediatricians, biological parents, foster parents, and others. They have access to a variety of information, including some that is confidential, like medical records. Then, knowing everything about the children and the case, they make recommendations to the court on behalf of the children about what would be best moving forward.
The types of recommendations that a CASA makes are vast. It often moves beyond the narrow scope of a case plan. While a CASA will make recommendations to the court about how a child moves forward in foster care, they also advocate for everyday needs, such as tutoring, counseling, healthcare, clothing, nutrition, and more.
CASAs are unique figures in the field of foster care because they have no agenda. Their only focus is on the children and teens. They have no ulterior motives. Whereas the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office might naturally lean towards recommending reunification or termination of parental rights, CASAs take in everything without an opinion on the matter. They look at it through the lens of what is best for the child.
The Importance of Discernment as a CASA
With access to so much information, discernment is key. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) must analyze visits with children, converse with numerous other parties (caseworkers, biological parents, foster parents, teachers, pediatricians, therapists, etc.), and produce a confident report for the court with the best recommendations.
CASAs must look beyond the surface. For example, if a child in foster care says that they dislike a foster family because there are too many rules, the CASA must interpret the true situation. Perhaps structure and routine are foreign to the child but are things they desperately need. The CASA must ensure that they have done the due diligence to bring good recommendations to the court. Dorina Goetz, who serves as a CASA volunteer in Nevada, describes it this way: when a judge reads her report, she wants them to know without a shadow of a doubt, “This person has done their research.”
Bringing a confident report to the court is a primary responsibility for CASAs. As the voice for children and teens in foster care, CASAs make recommendations that can change someone’s life. It is not a responsibility to take lightly, but it is one that CASAs are fully equipped to do.
Qualifications of Foster Care CASAs
There is a common misconception that Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are special or highly qualified people. The truth is that almost anyone can be a CASA volunteer! If you are over 21 years old, you are more than likely qualified. All you need is a heart for children. CASAs build relationships by doing practical things. If you are willing to go to the park, bake a cake, or read books with a child, for example, you could make a profound impact as a CASA.
Consistency and boldness are two important characteristics of a CASA volunteer. Over the weeks, months, or years that a CASA is part of a case, they might be the only consistent person for the children and teens in foster care. The constant support and friendship that a CASA provides can help those children persevere.
Because CASAs make recommendations to the court about the future of a child, teen, or sibling group in court, they must be bold. CASAs conduct extensive research while preparing their report. They must be a brave and confident voice for the children.
Time Commitment as a CASA
The time expectation for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) varies slightly by state and case. CASAs spend approximately two hours a week on CASA-related responsibilities. That might look like writing a report or preparing for a court review, which takes place every six months. CASAs might spend time contacting other people involved in the children’s lives, such as a caseworker or a pediatrician. Each month, CASAs also connect with the children or teens they represent. For example, a CASA might go on a walk to the park with the child, teen, or sibling group. They might go out for ice cream or color together. With every interaction, CASAs gather information to make informed recommendations to the court in the child’s best interest.
Once assigned to a case, the CASA remains involved until the case is closed. This can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to years. During this time, CASAs build life-changing relationships with the children or teens in foster care, as well as others involved in the case. Because their only agenda is to advocate for the children, CASAs can build relationships with biological parents, foster parents, caseworkers, judges, teachers, and others.
The time commitment and method for CASA training also varies by state. If you are interested in becoming a CASA, be prepared to dive deep into the training. The connections you make with mentors and other CASAs will equip and encourage you in your role.
Persevering Through the Challenges
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are crucial for the wellbeing of children and teens in foster care, but they experience both beauty and pain. Dorina Goetz has been a CASA in Nevada for over a year and a half. In describing the challenges of being a CASA, she says, “It’s sad to see and to hear the stories.” She is constantly reminded of how broken the world is. The stories never get easier, and it can take an emotional toll. But it is even harder for the children and teens in foster care who do not have a CASA.
CASAs see all sides of the foster care system. Dorina Goetz clearly remembers one day in CASA training when a family judge came to speak. The judge’s perspective humbled her. She recalls him saying, “Poverty does not mean that someone should lose their child.” In the realm of foster care, Dorina knows that some foster families feel like a “savior” when they can offer a nicer life for a child. They might even feel entitled to care for the child. But Dorina warns against feeling this way. As the family judge told the group of future CASA volunteers that day, “The goal legally is to get these children back with their parents.” It might not always seem like the best goal, but that is how the legal system works.
CASAs might need to make tough decisions about what to recommend to the court. Wisdom and discernment are vital. At what point do you switch the case plan for a child, teen, or sibling group? What do you recommend if a parent physically cannot care for their children? What is best for the child if reunification seems unlikely? No one can see the future, so it can be hard to make these life-altering recommendations without knowing the outcome. But this is the role of a CASA.
Take the Next Step
If you feel a tug on your heart to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children and teens in foster care, do not delay. There is a dire need for CASAs in the foster care system. Without you, there is one less child with a voice. You could be the friend that shows up consistently to be their advocate.
Although you will change the life of children and teens in foster care by becoming a CASA, they will also change your life. To learn more about volunteering as a CASA in your state, visit the National CASA/GAL Association website.