“Child Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are the only people in the room not being paid”, explains Nancy Stewart, Executive Director of CASA Denver. “These kiddos go through extraordinary things as their families work through the court system, and they need a voice that speaks up for what they want. That’s the role of the CASA volunteer.”
Every year tens of thousands of kiddos are determined to be neglected or at risk. When that happens various government organizations step in to investigate and help the child where they can. Physical and sexual abuse are common, not being fed, being truant for months at a time, being in a dangerous environment, being exposed to drug taking, and horrific violence feature heavily too. The agencies investigate and determine what should be done, and prosecute where required.
A CASA is a special kind of person. They are volunteers who work with a given family, which may have one child, may have more, as they go through this process. They visit with them at least twice a month, taking them on outings, playing with them, getting to know them, but they especially listen and understand. For these children, their CASA is often the most consistent person in their lives.
In its simplest form, the CASA is the voice of the child. They are there to answer the question, “and what does the child want?”. A case may have a Guardian Ad Litem who is an attorney appointed by the court to look after the LEGAL needs of the child, but the CASA looks after the WANTS of the child.
I am a father and have been looking for something to get my teeth into where I can make a difference for children. I hadn’t heard of CASA until a local event in Denver where kids came to fill backpacks for other children going back to school who otherwise wouldn’t have had one. (Check out The Kids Compassion Project to learn about their work)
I initially wanted to be a CASA Advocate myself, but I travel extensively and so can’t always be present for visits and court dates when I would need to be, so, for now, I am going to be an Ambassador for CASA, spreading the word of their work to people just like you.
In general, CASA always needs more volunteers but interestingly they especially need men, and they need people of color. Both are enormously underrepresented, and often the kiddo feels more comfortable with someone they can relate to. In Denver alone the need is for 750 Advocates, helping thousands of kiddos a year.
Once accepted, a new CASA volunteer is trained over about 40 hours, as a combination of weekends and evening classes, depending on demand. As I am given a brief version of the official Advocate’s training by Chadley (who is part of the team in Denver), I begin to understand what it takes to be an Advocate, and also how utterly rewarding it must be.
“We need people to commit”, Chadley explains, “we don’t want people who will bail and be another person that lets the kiddo down.” Keeping an open mind is critical too. Their normal is not your normal. The primary goal of CASA and ‘The System’ that they operate within is for permanency. What they go back to might look awful to you, but the outcome may still be better for them in the long term. In training, you learn how to help, what to look for, how to write a report for the court that communicates for the child through you.
Each CASA is supported by a team lead; Chadley fills that role too for some. She and the rest of the Denver team field questions about procedures and ideas, but often act as the sounding board for the Volunteers too. The Denver CASAs also have access to a beautiful home that they rent from a church and was renovated by a small army of volunteers. Chadley is meeting with me there and explained what an asset the CASA House really is. “In winter in Denver, it can be hard for CASAs to find places to take their kids without it getting expensive. Now they can bring them here, use the art room, sit and read books etc..”
The arguments for why CASA is such a wonderful idea come thick and fast. Of course, giving a neglected or abused child a voice is in itself remarkable, and I encourage all of you to consider if being an Advocate could be for you. But additionally, CASA also has a positive impact on society at large. By helping these children find permanency and giving them a better life, they are each less likely to repeat the cycle of substance abuse, neglect, domestic violence etc.. One source cited a cost in healthcare, crime prevention, and welfare being at least $100,000 extra if someone does not get the support they need in childhood when they need it.
There is actually a scoring system for this — ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), which measures stressful or traumatic events. The more ACEs, the higher the likelihood of substance abuse, suicide, poor dental and health care, negative pregnancy outcomes, and much more.
What constitutes an ACE is very varied, to the point that being on the scale is extremely common. Physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing violence in the home, parental divorce, an incarcerated family member all count.
In short, the more ACEs, the more likely you are to proceed on a negative life journey.
(Read more about ACE on ACEsTooHigh.com)
YET, research then shows that a consistent adult presence in a child's life effectively reduces the ACEs score impact, having a long-lasting positive impact on that kiddo’s future. CASA Advocates are one such consistency.
Further, CASA has also expanded its function to look more at prevention by providing Volunteers to step in on truancy cases, and also through EEIA (Early Education Intervention Advocacy). I actually wasn’t aware of how serious the truancy situation is, and what chronic truancy can mean.
In America 7 million children (1 in 7) will miss a month or more of school each academic year, a rate that increases 4-fold in areas of poverty, and that missing just 2 days per month is a strong indicator for poor performance, dropping out before graduation, and therefore earning less. and being less happy in life. Yet intervention makes a big difference, and data shows that even relatively small improvements in attendance have significant positive outcomes.
It’s logical for CASA to be in this space — get to the kids early, reduce the negative impacts. Sometimes all it takes is for a Volunteer to go figure out what’s going on, help the parents get their kiddo the help they need, and even help pay for a bus pass so the kiddo can actually get to school.
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I joined to help CASA spread the word, find more Advocates, and to raise additional funds to support their work.