The following is a blog from Marilyn Green-Rebnord, who has been a court appointed special advocate or CASA. In this role she has provided invaluable help to families trying to navigate the special education system. She was also one of the founders and moving forces behind Special Kids, Special Families that for more than a decade provided excellent advice, support and presentations on various topics to help families. While Special Kids has now disbanded she continues to help families as a CASA and working part-time in my office.
I have volunteered as a court appointed special advocate (CASA) for the past six years. What is a CASA? CASAs are specially trained volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for abused and neglected children in court to ensure that these children can thrive in safe, permanent, and nurturing homes. Our goal is to provide each and every child a “voice in court.” We try to represent the best interests of that child even when it goes against the opinions of the child’s caseworkers, foster or biological parents, attorneys, etc. According to the National CASA website, I am one of more than 70,000 CASAs who in 2009 advocated on behalf of more than 237,000 children who through no fault of their own found themselves enmeshed in the child welfare system.
The statistics justifying the effectiveness of CASAs are impressive. Again, according to the National CASA website, children with CASAs are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care (defined as greater than 3 years) than children without CASAs (13.3% vs. 27.0%). Children and families who have CASAs receive more services than those who do not have CASAs. Children with CASAs are more likely to be adopted, and children with CASAs are less likely to return to the foster care system.
CASAs talk to all parties involved in the case: natural parents, foster parents, teachers, physicians, caseworkers, therapists, grandparents, or anyone else who has information on that child. But most importantly, we talk to the child. If it is a young child or an infant, we are playing with him or her and using our judgment to assess how the child is doing in the foster home (or biological home). If the child is older, we ask questions. . . lots of questions. I usually ask kids before a court hearing, “What do you want the judge to know?” The answers are often heartbreakingly common: “Tell the judge that I want to go home.” Or even more heartbreaking: “Please, I don’t want to go home.” We then synthesize all of the information that we gather into reports presented in court with recommendations for the case.
The goal of the CASA organization is to provide some sense of continuity for children assigned CASAs. When a CASA takes a case (and generally CASAs take no more than one or two cases at a time), he or she commits to staying with that case until it is formally closed in court and the child achieves permanency. The turnover of personnel in the child welfare system is huge. I am entering my fifth year on my two current cases, and I would be hard put to tell you how many foster parents, caseworkers, judges, therapists, or Guardian ad litems (GALs) my individual children have had. I like to think that I have provided some sense of constancy for my kids. And I hope I that these kids trust that despite all of the upheavals and changes in their lives, I will keep coming around.
So what does it mean to me to be a CASA? Well for one thing, I know that the day I visit my kids is a day that they have been hugged. Some days I become incredibly angry because I have encountered truly despicable people in my role as a CASA. I have also met saints on earth in some of my foster parents who are willing to open their hearts and homes to often deeply troubled children. And there are days I’m extraordinarily frustrated by the bureaucracy of an overburdened foster care system.
It’s been an eye-opening experience for me to be a CASA, and I’ve really had to learn to try to leave behind my judgmental nature and my white, middle-class comfort zone. It’s an ugly world out there, and some of the biological parents I have worked with have had equally ugly lives—some of them have been products of the foster care system themselves. One biological mom’s unwillingness to read a bedtime story to her child really bothered me until I realized that no one had ever read her a bedtime story or given her goodnight kisses when she was a child. She didn’t know how it could be. But I expect more from the foster parents and am occasionally unabashedly judgmental of them: why be a foster parent if you can’t even be bothered to remember a 4-year-old child’s birthday?
When I come home after CASA visits, I usually want to hug my own children and try to explain to them that although they sometimes think I’m the worst parent on earth, I’m really not. I come home from my CASA visits incredibly grateful for the support of my family and friends (I’m learning that many families in crisis have no family or friends on whom they can rely). I come home from CASA visits incredibly grateful for the schools my children attend (and I have frequently gone toe to toe with schools over the services my own child receives). Although not every CASA child I see is a special needs student or lives in a “have not” district, most of these kids attend poorly funded schools with inadequate services. Many of these schools are already on state “watch” lists, and even though there may be good and well-meaning people in these districts doing their best, these kids don’t have nearly the opportunities my children have received. And I find that scary. And I don’t know what the future holds for these kids.
Uniformly, each and every parent I met through Special Kids, Special Families or through the unique special needs world in which I (and possibly you, too) live is desperately trying to do his or her best for their children. Parents are prepared to question, to learn, to negotiate, to schlep, and to do whatever they can to improve their children’s lives. But many kids in the foster care system don’t have this kind of support. Chances are that if you are reading this blog you are possibly the parent of a special needs child (or a teacher, or an attorney, or some other professional). Believe me; I understand how overwhelming the task of advocating for your own child is. And I truly understand how challenging it can be to parent a child with special needs. But there are a lot of kids out there desperate for a caring adult in their lives who can step in and try to make things a little bit better for them. As a parent of a special needs child, you already know a lot. If you ever find that you may have the time, think about becoming a CASA. You have a lot to give a child.
National CASA Association
CASA Lake County