The Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, or CASA, provides a vital service in the lives of abused or neglected children who have been taken from their homes by Child Protective Services.
These children have no voice in the adult world of the judicial system. This is where CASA volunteers step in. With more than 900 CASA programs around the United States, it has been a great success for helping these children who are in need.
“It’s perhaps the most incredible thing on God’s green earth,” said Jean Cate, the CASA program director for Hood/Somervell County. “When home is no longer a safe place, these children need someone to be there just for them.”
CASA began as part of the National Volunteer movement that began over 25 years ago. In Seattle, Wash., a judge decided he needed to know more about the children whose lives he was going to affect. The judge appointed community volunteers that soon became the voice in the court for the children whose best interest is the main focus.
“CASA is an important part of the judiciary process,” said Glen Rose City Attorney Andy Lucas, who serves as the ad litem in these cases. “Their work is helpful to all - the court, the representative of the children and the children.”
Lucas has been representing children as ad litem for CASA cases since 2000 when CASA came to the Hood/Somervell County area. As an ad litem, Lucas works with the CASA volunteer to gather all the facts of a case and determine what the best interest is for the represented child. The CASA volunteers works as the eyes and the ears of the court.
“Every year, there are 20,000 children removed from their homes by CPS,” said Cate. “Judges only have a few minutes to make a decision. CASA helps lessen the child welfare burdens of the court.”
CASA volunteers must meet certain criteria to qualify. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old, be able to pass an extensive criminal and CPS background check and dedicate at least one year of their time. Once accepted, volunteers must undergo 30 hours of in-depth training and dedicate their time to a case until it is fully closed. A case can last anywhere from a year to a year and a half.
“We have volunteers from all walks of life,” Cate said. “Some of our volunteers are retired nurses, schoolteachers, attorneys and one volunteer is a retired investigator of public defense. The majority of our volunteers fall between 40 to 60 plus years.”
Volunteers usually dedicate between six to 10 hours a month on the case and are continually trained every year. Volunteers do independent investigative work with the counselors, attorneys and CPS on a case. The volunteers gather facts of the situation, interview and observe the child with his/her parents or guardians and get to know the child through the counselors, teachers and others who interact with the child. Volunteers are required to attend all of the hearings.
“CASA is a great tool in assisting the ad litem with making all of the facts known in a case,” Lucas said. “They help ensure that actions are carried out from the court’s rulings.”
Volunteers are required to write reports for the court on their findings and make suggestions for the best solutions for child, which are put into court record. According to Cate, the judges in Hood County pay close attention to the CASA reports. Cate has never heard a case in which the judge made no reference to the report made by the CASA volunteer.
“CASA provides an effective and needed service with their ability to involve themselves with the children,” said Lucas. “They’re a neutral third party whose only interest is the children.”
CASA volunteers have aided many children in CPS cases, changing the lives of each child. In 2008, there were 5,259 CASA volunteers in Texas alone. These volunteers helped 20,451 children in 20 different counties.
“The dedication and care CASA volunteers have for kids have resolved many cases involving abuse and neglect,” Lucas said.
The Hood/Somevell County CASA currently has 36 volunteers. In each case, the initial purpose of the volunteer and attorney is reunification with parents. However, in some cases there are other alternatives.
“One case I’m working on is where children were involved with drug abuse and neglect in the home,” said Lucas. “The children have bonded with their foster parents, and we are working on a non-parent adoption. Sometimes that’s the best route for the children.”
In some cases, the outcome is not exactly how the volunteer and attorney may have wanted it to work out.
“As a CASA volunteer, don’t be discouraged. Just be there for the kids and remember that you did make a difference in a child’s life,” Cate said.
CASA accepts applications year round, but Cate teaches the training course once in the spring and once in the fall.
If someone cannot dedicate the amount of time to be a volunteer, there are other ways to help. The program accepts donations or a Texas motorist can purchase a CASA license plate that depicts the CASA logo. The plates cost $30 for a single set or $40 if personalized. More than 70 percent, or $22, of the cost of the plate goes towards CASA through the attorney general’s office.
For more information, contact Hood/Somervell County CASA at 817-579-6866 or visit the Web site at www.texascasa.org.