Be an Advocate: Why I Volunteer With CASA

Some of you know that late last year I went through training to become a CASA volunteer. I've had some people ask what exactly CASA is and what I've been doing. So let me explain!

Why I Volunteer with CASA

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. As a CASA volunteer I have a court order to be an advocate for children. Specifically the child I was assigned to, but also in general. CASA volunteers are assigned to cases after completing 40 hours of training. Some cases involve one child, like mine. Some involve many more children (one case another volunteer is currently on involves 8 kids).

So what does being an advocate mean? Well, the child welfare system is a bit of a mess. Sometimes the actual children themselves can get overlooked in the chaos of hearings and meetings and custody battles. Usually that happens because the public defender assigned to the child is so overloaded they barely have time to meet with the child, let alone actually get to know them and their situation in detail. And unless there is a CASA volunteer on the case, that public defender may be the only person sticking up for the best needs of the child.

Unlike those overloaded public defenders, most CASA volunteers only take on one or two cases at a time. We meet the child in person on a fairly regular basis. We talk to the child's biological parents, foster parents, counselors, teachers, and other people in their life. We read the case files. We get to know the ins and the outs of what has happened in this child's life. And before every court hearing, CASA volunteers prepare court reports for the judge to review.

You may have always thought, like I did, that what I just described is what DHS workers do. But actually DHS workers aren't as concerned about the children specifically as they are the family as a whole. And while I'm sure most DHS workers wish they could spend time getting to know all the children they are assigned to, most are like public defenders and have more cases than they can handle. They do the best they can with the time they have, but again, they are focused on the family as a whole, not necessarily what is best for the child.

As a CASA volunteer, my job is to focus solely on the child. I don't care what the foster parents want, what the biological parents want, or what the DHS worker recommends (though all of those wishes and statements are factored in). I only care about what is best for the child I'm working with. Sometimes that will mean being reunified with mom and dad. Sometimes just mom or dad. And sometimes that means having mom and dad's rights terminated and being adopted by other family members or foster parents.

I finished my training in mid-December, and hours after being sworn-in I got a call asking me to review a case. I ended up accepting that case, and was officially assigned in January. The case had been going on for a year, but since I've gotten on board it has progressed quickly. Not necessarily because I'm a part of it now, though that may have helped. Last week I attended a hearing that decided what will be the permanent home for the child. Obviously I can't give any details, but I know that what was decided is absolutely in the best interest of the child. That isn't always how it turns out.

My time with this first case isn't over yet. While major decisions were made last week, there is still more paperwork and details to finalize. But it feels like my first case was as successful as it possibly could have been. Most cases that make it family court will never have a completely and totally happy ending, though it does happen occasionally. Overall though, I think you can only hope for the best.  

So now that my case is nearly over, am I planning on taking on another one? I think so. Most cases don't resolve as quickly as my first one did (at least, it resolved quickly after my involvement), so they are a big commitment.

But I also know that there is a huge need for CASA volunteers. Ideally there would be a volunteer for every case, but that isn't possible right now. In Oklahoma County CASA volunteers represent less than 30% of the abused and neglected children in the system. There aren't enough people willing to step up and be an advocate. And I understand. I mean, you have to commit to 40 hours of training just to be able to volunteer. Most people don't volunteer 40 hours in an entire year. I know, because I didn't for many years!

The need is great, though. And I promise you, it is such important work. You can make a huge difference in a child's life by being a CASA volunteer. If you've ever thought about it, I encourage you to look into it again. If you've read this post and think you might be interested, look into it! I'd be happy to answer any questions you have. Or you can head to the National CASA website to find out more about volunteering.

Previously on Mrs Robbins Sparkles