Each year juvenile courts around the United States receive more than a million allegations of abuse or neglect involving children and youth.
Unfortunately, these children become victims of an overburdened child welfare system while waiting for a judge to decide their future. In the 1970s, one judge who believed volunteers could be trained to advocate for the best interest of children came up with the idea of a national Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program.
“Our goal is to assure that a permanent home is found for each child and that their chance for a stable, healthy life begins at the earliest stage of the judicial process,” says Sallie Hussey, executive director of CASA Inc. of Nashville/Davidson County. “We are seen as an extension of the courts.
We can only get involved if the Juvenile Court appoints us. A CASA volunteer serves as a fact finder for the judge by thoroughly researching the background of an assigned case. She acts as a watchdog for the child during the life of the case and speaks on behalf of the child in court.”
A Closer Look at CASA
The state organization, The Tennessee CASA Association, Inc., provides support to local agencies. It began in 1986 when directors of local CASA agencies began to meet and share ideas and concerns. Currently there are 14 local CASA agencies in Tennessee and 900 across the nation.
“For the last 18 years we have recruited and trained everyday, ordinary folks to advocate for abused and neglected children in court,” says Hussey.
Volunteers don’t investigate the abuse charge, but they do gather information from a variety of sources, including the child, the child’s parents, foster parents, daycare providers, doctors, teachers and anyone else involved with the everyday care of the child. Once they have this information, they bring it back to the court system via a written court report and testimony to help the judge in forming a good, educated opinion about where this child should live.
“We strive to get these children out of foster care and temporary homes and into safe, permanent, happy homes as soon as possible,” Hussey says, adding that, a child spends an average of three years in foster care in the United States before a case is settled. “CASA will make sure that the courts are mindful of the child’s sense of time. Children with a CASA volunteer get a home almost one year quicker than those without,” she says. “Social workers and attorneys may have 30 to 40 cases at a time. CASA volunteers have one. They have time to dig deep. They want to be there. When we go in the court, the judge knows the CASA volunteer has had time to dig.”
Staffed almost entirely by non-paid volunteers, CASA can make a real difference in the lives of children at risk. Some of the few paid staff include four advocate supervisors, who work full-time to assist the local 200 CASA volunteers and attend court with them.
“Some volunteers have been with us since the beginning and the majority work full-time. We’re always looking for dedicated, committed volunteers,” Hussey says.
“Last year, there were 1,000 neglected and abused children seen in Davidson County Juvenile Court,” she continues. “We were involved in 517 of those cases. We would advocate for every child if it were possible. The children who go through court without a CASA volunteer are the ones who inspire me to do my job every day. Someday we hope to advocate for every child.”
Becoming a CASA Volunteer
“I think the mistake is that people think they have to be a lawyer to volunteer,” says Charlotte Thomason, executive director of the Tennessee CASA Association, “but you only need to be someone who cares deeply about children and their well being.”
Because being a CASA volunteer is so different from any other volunteer role, a prospective applicant must give three references and complete 32 hours of training, a series of interviews and a background check before taking a case. The training covers topics such as courtroom procedure, child abuse regulations, foster care, mental health issues and attachment and separation disorder.
“The class prepares you to begin to advocate for a child. It is one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences in the world,” says Hussey, who was a CASA volunteer for three years before becoming the executive director in 1999. “Children can be tied up in the court system for months and years. Once you see the information that you uncovered helped a child, it makes all your efforts worthwhile.”
Thomason agrees. “People volunteer because they want to make a difference in the life of a child,” she says. “By being an advocate you are helping her not to slip through the cracks and get lost in the system.”
A Volunteer Close-Up
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life. “We have volunteers who are doctors, nurses, retired advertising executives, teachers, music industry folks and many other professionals from all age ranges,” Hussey says.
CASA volunteer Pam Lynch has four children in grade school, two of whom she and her husband are in the process of adopting. They also have a 22-year-old son whom they adopted eight years ago. Whenever possible, Lynch volunteers at her children’s schools and at her church. But being a CASA volunteer fulfills her like no other.
“I have such a special place in my heart for children,” Lynch says. “I was an emergency room nurse for 15 years and saw many children who suffered from abuse. I had heard about CASA and I thought, someday I’d like to be a part of something like that. About three years ago that time came.”
Lynch says when a volunteer is assigned a case she may spend several hours a week on it at first, but then things slow down after some of the paperwork is finished.
“Every case is different. What’s so rewarding is knowing that your time and research may have a positive influence on the life of this child,” she says. “I don’t have any alliances to anyone else, not to the parents or the foster parents. It’s my job to make sure that the child will be heard. The lawyer and social worker are there for the child, but they have lots of other cases. I can focus solely on one particular child.”
Lynch encourages others to think about becoming a CASA volunteer. “It’s definitely worthwhile,” she explains. “If you have a love for children, can be a good listener and can be assertive, this volunteer experience may be for you, too.”
For More Information:
CASA of Rutherford County
Susan Maguigan, Executive Director
P.O. Box 3135, 123 East Main St.
Murfreesboro, TN 37133-3135
CASA of Coffee and Bedford Counties
Lynne Farrar, Director
100 East Side Square
Shelbyville, TN 37160
Cristin Mammarelli is a mother and freelance writer residing in Bellevue.