The Tri-County CASA program is one of 11 in the state, and one of about 1,000 nationwide, that depend on volunteers to become the court’s experts on children placed in foster care while social workers, attorneys and judges try to decide on permanent placements for their future.
Removed from their homes for abuse or neglect, foster children may find that their CASA volunteer is the only constant in their lives during this difficult time. When a CASA volunteer accepts an assignment, he or she is committing to stay involved until it is resolved, usually a year and a half. Social workers typically work with families to help them complete services so that, when possible, children can return to a safe home. Attorneys and other professionals typically work on a number of cases at a time, involving a number of families and children. CASA volunteers work only with a few children at a time so they have time to get to know the child and really finding out what will be best for the child’s future. CASA volunteers become the eyes and ears of the court, and serve as advocates for the children during hearings and other procedures.
Most of the program’s funding comes from the federal Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, which helps with starting up and expanding programs. Volunteers receive training but no other compensation, and must undergo background checks and complete training before being sworn in by the court.
Once assigned, the volunteers act as watchdogs for the children until they are placed in loving, permanent homes. They review documents and records, interview the children, family members and professionals in their lives, help the child understand the proceedings, provide reports and keep the courts informed of developments — they help connect all the pieces and keep the child’s best interests front and center.
Nationally, some 77,000 volunteers advocated for 234,000 children in one recent year. In Alabama there are about 300 volunteers. Alabama’s state CASA program started in 1997, but most counties still do not have CASA programs in place.
While the goal is to help find the best permanent home for the children, the Alabama CASA Network lists other benefits from the program — that children are more likely to be adopted, less likely to re-enter foster care, and more likely to have a plan for permanency. They are more likely to get help while in the system, more likely to do better in school, more likely to have positive attitudes toward the future, value achievement and be better able to work with others and resolve conflicts.
One volunteer in Talladega County and five in St. Clair County were recently sworn in by the courts, giving them authority to gather information on behalf of the children they will be helping. It’s a big commitment, and one that should make a big difference for children who desperately need help and stability in their lives.