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.”
Once 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.