A few years ago, I was granted a fellowship to look at best practices in child welfare and interventions for children at risk. I concluded that CASA was the single best program in America. It just worked.
I still feel that way.
CASA stands for “court appointed special advocates.” The program trains and supervises court-appointed advocates for children who are “being processed” in the child welfare and court systems. The job of the advocate, who is extensively trained by the organization — 40 hours here in Toledo — is simple: To advocate for the best interests of the child.
I was taken to CASA’s Toledo headquarters a few days ago by Robert Z. Kaplan, a longtime CASA board member and one of our city’s finest lawyers and greatest human beings.
There are more than 77,000 CASA advocates serving in 933 state and local programs throughout the United States. And it is said that almost a quarter of a million kids have been helped by CASA . Toledo’s CASA program is one of the first founded in this nation.
Each CASA worker represents no more than two children, but quite often just one. The CASA worker stays with the child as long as he is in the system. It is not the advocate’s job to be a friend or mentor but to agitate for the child’s best interests, often against the wishes of the child himself and/or his or her parents.
Sometimes this means advocating for the child’s removal from a home where he is neglected or endangered. Sometimes it means advocating that a child be left with a loving guardian, or placed with a blood relative, or taken from a foster home and put into another. In any given year, there are 700 abused or neglected Lucas County children in “out of home” care. CASA makes sure they do not get lost in the system. CASA speaks for the child.
The thinking behind CASA is partly this: Everyone else in family court has an interest, a desire, and an opinion — the father, the mother, other relatives, the social worker, the lawyers. The CASA worker is duty-bound to do his own extensive and independent investigation and speak for only one thing — what would be best for this young and vulnerable person?
On the day I visited Toledo’s CASA chapter, I watched a judicial proceeding in which a child was removed from a mother who had ceased to physically care for him and was in the grip of addiction. She did not show up for the hearing. The judge did not hesitate. He removed the child.
Some states are so focused on family reunification that they forget the safety of kids. Those states desperately need CASA. The Ohio courts have perhaps been pushed toward balance, and educated, by CASA,
Volunteers are badly needed and always sought. But not every volunteer can or should make the cut. You have to leave your personal biases at the door. You have to do the training and the investigations. You have to have a substantial block of time available.
And so you also have to be capable of detachment and not become too emotional.
I asked CASA training coordinator Judy Leb about that: Are some people just too soft-hearted to do this work?
You would think so, she said. In fact, she told me, she was such a person, once: “A person who cried at Hallmark cards.” But she says the kids who come to CASA are the most neglected and abused children in the child-welfare system. The worst cases. Their parents and the system have already failed them repeatedly. So the quest for justice exerts its own grace, animates a good volunteer, and even holds his emotions in check. The volunteer is focused on a result: a safer and better life for the child to whom he is assigned. Some day, I hope I can be a CASA volunteer.
The thing is, Ms. Leb says, the program helps every life it takes on because its goals and procedures are so clear.
In addition to Ms. Leb, I met Lucas County’s CASA director, Carol Martin, and staff lawyer Debbie Lipson. These three women inspired me with their quiet, disciplined zeal and dedication. They are saving lives, really saving lives, one life at a time. There are saints in this town.
To learn more about CASA and how to volunteer go to: www.casakids.net or call 419- 213- 6753.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.