Each year over 500,000 children in the United States are thrown into the court system through no fault of their own. Some of the children are victims of violence, physical, mental or sexual abuse. Many of the children have been neglected or even abandoned by their own parents. Most of the children are confused and frightened. All too easily, the children can also become a victim of the overburdened system, which includes court personnel, attorneys, social service agencies…. Well-minded individuals who are often unable to give the detailed attention needed by each child. The consequences can be devastating to a child.
This is where a CASA Advocate can make a difference. The CASA concept is based on the commitment that every child has the right to a safe, permanent home with loving people to care for him or her. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is a program consisting of trained community volunteers, who are appointed by the judge and speak up for our abused and neglected children’s right to a safe, permanent home.
According to the National CASA Association, annual foster care costs over $6 billion. The children in the foster care system may never know what it is like to have a permanent home, with their formative years "lost " in temporary care while the court decides their fate. The cost alone is excessive, but the cost in human potential is even greater.
Enter the CASA concept. CASA originated in 1976 in Seattle Washington under the direction of Judge David Soukup, and began as a pilot program in 1977. Judge Soukup sought a mechanism which would ensure that he was getting all the facts surrounding the case and that the long term welfare of each child in the system was being addressed. The original goal of CASA was to make sure that the abuse and neglect that the children originally suffered at home would not continue as abuse and neglect at the hands of the court system. Funding was obtained, and community volunteers were trained to step up in the courtroom on behalf of the children. Currently there are over 710 CASA programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nationwide the organization has 42,000 volunteers.
CASA of DuPage County Inc, is a nonprofit agency founded in April 1993, when a small group of interested citizens entered into a formal agreement with the 18th Judicial Circuit. It was organized in compliance with the National CASA Standards for CASA Programs and Recommended Management Practices. Today, there are over 162 volunteers serving 186 children in the system. Since its inception in DuPage County, over 421 children have been served.
The organizational structure of CASA of DuPage, consists of a Board of Directors and program staff, its valued volunteer advocates and community supporters. The volunteer Board of Directors exists to provide governance, evaluation and financial stability for the organization. The program staff consists of two program co-directors, five case managers, one office administrator and one volunteer coordinator. The program co-directors are responsible for the routine operation and development, representing CASA in the community and developing alliances with other agencies within the court system. The case managers provide professional staff support to the advocates ensuring that the children involved with the CASA program receive sound advocacy and early permanency planning. The case managers are responsible for volunteer supervision and coordination of cases. Friends of CASA are members of the community who wish to donate time, talent and or resources to the activities that promote and support the mission and vision of CASA of DuPage, County Inc.
Prior to the assignment of a case, the CASA advocates receive 35 hours of pre-service training, swear an oath of confidentiality before a DuPage County judge, and are asked to commit to at least eighteen months of service. Prior to acceptance for training, a background check is completed on each advocate, and the volunteers are further screened for objectivity, competence and their commitment to the needs of children. The training is comprehensive and is conducted by judges, attorneys, social service providers, and other professionals. Training includes, among other topics, the court process, relevant laws and legal issues, cultural awareness, interviewing and advocacy techniques, personal safety, dynamics of abuse and neglect, responsibilities of CASA volunteers, and their relationship to the attorneys, service providers and the families. On-going in-service training is provided to all advocates and staff on such topics as sexual abuse, changes in the legal system, testifying in court and educational issues. After training, the new advocates are assigned a mentor who is an active advocate able to share his or her experiences to help guide and educate the new advocate. CASA of DuPage County Inc., has had the good fortune to host three training classes in 1999 with 72 volunteers completing the training.
CASA volunteers are the heart of the organization. The volunteers are from all corners of the county, male and female ranging from recent college graduates to retired individuals, and have a variety of professional, educational and ethnic backgrounds. One common characteristic is that all advocates truly love children, and are seeking to make a difference in a child’s life. Advocates are typically assigned one case at a time, and stay with the case for the duration that the case is in the system, or until a permanent and safe home is found for the child. Once on a case, much of the CASA advocate’s time is spent interviewing the families, school officials, doctors, and others involved in the child’s life. The advocate prepares a written report to the court prior to each status or hearing date. The average time commitment is 10 to 15 hours per week, but may vary as the needs of the child or the court process dictates.
When a CASA volunteer advocate is appointed to a child’s case, he or she takes on the role of the child’s voice in the courtroom. The advocate works for the judge, alongside the attorneys and social workers. The responsibilities of a CASA are: (a) to advocate for the best interests of the child by reviewing records, interviewing parents, teachers, neighbors, and most importantly the child; (b) to devote one-on-one attention to the child’s case, by getting to know the child, and understanding the circumstances of the child’s life; (c) and to provide complete and objective information to the juvenile court judge. A CASA advocate does not provide recommendations, but provides a factual report based on the interviews and visits conducted and the information collected. The CASA further monitors compliance with court orders, including among other things, the parents’ compliance with drug testing, counseling, medical appointments, and delivery of services to the child. The CASA brings to the court’s attention any change in circumstances, or failure to comply with the goals that may require modification of a court order. The CASA attempts to facilitate communication between the court and the social service agencies to help eliminate court delays.
CASA Advocates seek to ensure that each child’s need for a nurturing loving family is acted upon in a sensitive and expedient manner. Our children are precious and must be protected. If interested in becoming part of the effort, CASA continues to seek volunteers and new members. Anyone wishing to obtain more information may call (630) 871-1402.
With compassion, empathy, and dedication, we advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the DuPage County juvenile and family court system. We protect each child’s right to a safe, permanent, nurturing, home.
Kathleen Buchanan Bondi is a Case Manager with CASA of DuPage County, Inc. She received her undergraduate degree from Eastern Illinois University, her Masters of Public Administration from Northern Illinois University and her law degree from The John Marshall Law School.
Dr. Kathy Karsh is Program Co-Director for CASA of DuPage County, Inc. She received her undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, her Masters of Arts from Ohio State University, and her Doctorate from Northern Illinois University.