Children who are in the court or social service systems due to neglect or abuse are vulnerable, and they often lack reliable adult advocacy. For the past 40 years, however, volunteers have been stepping up to help protect and guide these at-risk youths during their proceedings.
In 1977, Seattle juvenile court judge David Soukup found himself regularly waking up in the middle of the night worried about children. He worried that he regularly made drastic decisions in his courtroom about how to handle cases of abused and neglected children with insufficient information.
Judge Soukup envisioned citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of these children, and he contacted members of the community he thought could help him find such volunteers. He first asked interested people to come to a brown bag lunch to discuss this possibility and 50 people showed. From there, the program has grown a network of nearly 1,000 Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
When he retired from the bench, Judge Soukup himself became a CASA volunteer. He said the experience was “both the hardest — and the best — thing I’ve ever done.”
Sometimes CASA volunteers are the only consistent adult in an endangered child’s life. They are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children and make sure they don’t get lost in the legal and social service system.
Each year, more than 600,000 children go through foster care in the United States. There aren’t enough CASA volunteers to pair with each child, so judges assign volunteers to their toughest cases. In 2017, more than 85,000 CASA volunteers helped more than a quarter million abused and neglected children find permanent homes.
Court-Appointed Special Advocate Overview
The presence of a CASA volunteer in the life of a child who is in the court or family services system has a huge impact on the outcomes for that child. Children who have a CASA volunteer are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to reenter the foster system and are less likely to be expelled from school. In fact, children who have a CASA volunteer average eight fewer months in foster care than children without one.
CASA volunteers are supported continuously throughout their service. They have opportunities for continuing education and access to online resources provided by the National CASA Association, including a resource library, national Facebook community and an annual national conference. To maintain your status as a CASA volunteer, you are required to submit to 12 hours of yearly in-service training.
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According to the organization, when you become a CASA volunteer, these are some of your responsibilities:
- Research: Review court records and other documents related to the case, speak to the child, their family and the professionals involved with their case.
- Report: Share the research with the court.
- Appear in court: Provide testimony when asked and advocate for the child.
- Explain: Help the child understand the various proceedings around their case.
- Collaborate: Help the people and organizations involved in the child’s case come to cooperative solutions. Make sure the child and their family understand the various services available to them and help arrange appointments.
- Monitor the process: Stay up-to-date on case plans and court orders. Make sure the appropriate hearings are being held in a timely manner.
- Update the court: Any time the child’s situation changes, inform the court. Make sure the appropriate motions are filed on the child’s behalf.
Cases are assigned by the CASA staff with consideration to the suitability of the volunteer’s background and education and any prior experience as a CASA volunteer. Volunteers of all experiences and backgrounds are needed.
CASA volunteers are not allowed to:
- Shelter the child in the volunteer’s home
- Give money to the child or their family
- Attempt to intervene in violent situations
- Fail to report the child’s whereabouts in an emergency
They must also adhere to a very extensive code of ethics.
How to Become a CASA Volunteer
CASA volunteers come from all backgrounds; the only unifying trait of volunteers is empathy for children. You’ll be an advocate for children during the most confusing and traumatic time in their lives. It’s a challenging and fulfilling role that will positively impact the children in your charge.
Volunteers must complete 30 hours of training and pass background checks. Being a CASA volunteer is a 10- to 12-hour monthly commitment. CASA volunteers commit to seeing a case all the way through to the end, which averages around a year and a half.
Other requirements to become a CASA volunteer include:
- Be at least 21 years old, though some states have the minimum age as 25
- Be available for court appearances with advanced notice
After completion of the initial training, volunteers are sworn in by a judge as officers of the court. This gives them the legal authority to conduct research on the child’s situation and submit reports to the court.
Do Paid CASA Careers Exist?
Not all people who work for CASA are volunteers. Child advocacy can be a career, whether or not it is with CASA.
One such paid career is a supervisor for a CASA program. This is a critical role because they recruit and manage the volunteers. Their main tasks are:
- Attract volunteers that represent the ethnic and cultural make up of their community.
- Attract volunteers on an ongoing basis.
- Promote CASA in the community.
The average CASA supervisor makes $50,080 a year. Sixty-seven percent of people in that role have a bachelor’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree in social work is excellent for a CASA employee or volunteer. Though volunteers of all backgrounds are needed at CASA, qualified volunteers with a background in social work are especially valuable to the program.
Learn More About Social Work
Classes studying human behavior in social environments and family dynamics from Aurora University’s online Bachelor of Social Work lay the foundation for informed advocacy for an at-risk child. Graduates of the online BSW are eligible to take the examination for the State Social Work license (LSW) and to apply for advanced standing in Aurora University’s online master’s in social work if they choose to further their careers.