Standing up for the Kids—Court Appointed Special Advocates

Article Index

Court appointed special advocates support children who need it most.

One day while listening to the radio, Pat Howe heard an ad for the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, which pairs volunteers with youth in the child welfare system. Originally from Baltimore, Howe and her husband were living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and were preparing to move back to Maryland. Their youngest daughter had gone to college, and Howe was looking for a way use her experience as both a parent and a teacher to help others.

She thought, “That really sounds intriguing to me, because I sort of know about the frustrations of kids and parents, unusual situations that happen at home—I had also been an art teacher for ten years and I thought this may be something I would like to get into.”

What does a Court Appointed Special Advocate do?  

According to Patrick Seidl, development and communication coordinator at Maryland CASA Association, “judges appoint CASA volunteers to represent the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. . . . As the eyes and ears of the court, [volunteers] get to know and understand the child’s/youth’s needs, what services they are currently receiving, what services they may need, and what is in the child’s best interests as they progress through the child welfare system.”

CASAOnce Howe was settled in Maryland, she contacted Anne Arundel CASA Inc., and began her required training. Prior to being appointed to advocate for a child, volunteers must complete a pre-service training program that is offered by each local CASA affiliate in Maryland. The training incorporates a variety of topics, ranging from cultural competency and trauma-informed care to substance abuse and its effects on families.

Volunteers are also required to complete an additional 12 hours of specialty education coursework annually. These training sessions are offered throughout the year by Maryland CASA and local affiliate programs, and and include monthly webinars, regional in-person trainings, and an annual conference each year—usually held in April to coincide with Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“It’s probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” Howe says. “I believe that what we do for these kids is as healing for us as it is for them. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to help these kids. They are in situations they never asked for, thrown into a system where they don’t know anyone.”

Most volunteers are just like Howe, looking to give back to their communities. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, including stay-at-home moms and dads, empty nesters, young professionals and retirees. Volunteers can be found from nearly every age group, ethnicity and education level, and all satisfy the main requirement—the common goal of wanting to make a difference. As advocates, they develop an in-depth relationship with the child, and get to know the child’s family, attorneys, teachers, and counselors.

“They speak with these individuals and collect the information they need to provide best-interest recommendations,” Seidl says, “which are made through a written report that is submitted to the judge or magistrate that’s overhearing the child’s case and is presented during each courtroom session.”

How an Advocate Helps

Advocating for child’s needs could range from requesting special needs services, such as speech or occupational therapy, to mental health counseling, or even casting an opinion on whether or not a foster family is a good fit. Sometimes a CASA volunteer has to think outside the box to ensure a child or youth has what is needed to succeed.

For example, Howe was an advocate for a young woman about to age out of the foster system, who needed a driver’s license. The Department of Social Services had paid for the driver’s education class, but she couldn’t get the 60 hours of drive time required to take the driving test. Her foster mother was unable to help.

Howe stepped in and was able to advocate for DSS to pay for assistance to get the driving hours. She also helped the teen learn how to open a checking account and understand how credit cards work, and tutored her on other life skills so she was ready to transition to independence.

“Without a CASA, the young woman may not have known she could have continued to ask for that help,” says Howe.


A Lack of Resources

According to Seidl, CASA volunteers are typically assigned the most complex cases “including those with prior maltreatment or contact with the child welfare system; cases of extreme neglect, physical or sexual abuse; and cases where children have a higher level of risk.” He also indicates that parental substance abuse is a contributing factor in 70 percent of cases. This is something volunteers should be emotionally prepared for.

254I9679 LOW

Approximately 4,700 children are currently in Maryland’s child welfare system. Sadly, there are not enough CASA volunteers to ensure each child has representation. “CASA programs in Maryland had the capacity to reach just 20 percent of children in the state’s child welfare system this past year,” says Seidl, “leaving roughly 4 out of 5 with no advocate speaking up for their best interests. This insufficient capacity means that children may languish in the child welfare system for longer periods of time, increasing the likelihood of other social problems.”

Seidl is not discounting the contributions of the many compassionate professionals (attorneys, social workers, mental health professionals, etc.) who work on behalf of these children. It is just the reality that these professionals often have too many children in their caseloads and not enough time to devote adequate attention to each child.

Making a Difference

Is it worth the time and emotional commitment it takes to be a CASA volunteer? After 11 years of volunteering, Howe emphatically says yes. “There are a lot of wounded kids out there who just really need someone that they feel like they can look in the eyes and trust and believe in, because the people that they believed in the most in their lives have let them down.”

A few years ago, Howe’s cell phone rang. It was her very first CASA kid, whom she met when he was in middle school, at a low point in his life when he felt betrayed by his mother and had suffered emotional turmoil no child should experience. Now an adult, he called and said, “I know we haven’t talked in years, I still had your number and I just wanted to call and let you know that every once in awhile, something will come up, and I hear your words, and I just want to thank you for taking the time to believe in me, to stand by me, and I want you to know it made a difference.”


Interested in Advocating for a child?

To be a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer must:

Be at least 21 years of age.

Pass a background screening.

Complete 30 to 35 hours of training, which includes 3 hours of courtroom observation.

Commit to a child until his or her case has closed, or for at least one year.

Volunteer a minimum of 7 to 12 hours per month.

Care about the well-being of children.

Commit to representing a child’s best interests until the child reaches a safe, permanent home.

CASA RESOURCES

According to the Maryland CASA website, there is a particular need for more men, and African American men and women, though all demographics are welcome to volunteer.

Currently, Maryland CASA (888-833-2272; marylandcasa.org) supports 15 programs, serving 21 counties, including:

Anne Arundel CASA, Inc.: marylandcasa.org/programs/anne-arundel-county

CASA of Southern Maryland (Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties): marylandcasa.org/programs/southern-maryland

CASA of the Mid-Shore (Talbot, Dorchester, Queen Anne and Kent counties): marylandcasa.org/programs/talbot-county

Voices for Children (Howard County): marylandcasa.org/programs/howard-county

—Joyce Heid

© 2018 Chesapeake Family Life. All Rights Reserved.