Each year over 500,000 children in the United States enter into the court system through no fault of their own.1 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, and they are often forced to live with strangers because they are not able to live safely in their own homes. Too easily the children can also became victims of the overburdened system, which includes court personnel, attorneys, social service agencies… all well-minded individuals who often are unable to give the detailed attention needed by each child. Unfortunately, the consequences can be devastating to a child, and costly to society. The children in the foster care system may never know what it is like to have a safe and permanent home. Their formative years may be "lost" in temporary care while the court decides their fate. The cost of the process alone is excessive, but the cost in human potential is even greater. It is estimated that children who suffer abuse and neglect are 53% more likely to become juvenile delinquents and 38% more likely to become violent criminals as adults.2 One way to combat these statistics and outcomes for such children is a simple concept – the presence of a concerned adult in that child’s life who can advocate for the best interests of the child.
Enter the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA or Advocate). A CASA is a volunteer community member who is appointed by the judge to speak up for abused and neglected children and assist the process in pursuing the children’s right to a safe, permanent home. The CASA concept originated in 1976 in Seattle, Washington under the direction of Judge David Soukup, and began as a pilot program in King County, Washington in 1977. Judges in the juvenile abuse and neglect system realized that they were making far-reaching dispositions about the lives of children, often with little information from the child’s perspective. Judge Soukup sought a mechanism to assist him in getting more objective information surrounding a case in order to better address the long-term welfare of each child. Funding was obtained and community volunteers were trained to participate in the courtroom on behalf of the children. The program was a success and quickly spread to other counties and states. Currently there are over 932 CASA programs across the nation.3
In Illinois, the Juvenile Court Act provides the statutory authority for a court to appoint a CASA in a case.4 CASA of DuPage County, Inc. is a nonprofit agency founded in April 1993, when a small group of interested citizens entered into a formal written agreement with the 18th Judicial Circuit Court. It was organized in compliance with the National CASA Association’s standards for CASA programs. Today, there are over 110 advocate volunteers serving 154 children in the system. Since its inception in DuPage County, over 450 children have been served.
Becoming a CASA is a true commitment. Advocates must undergo over 30 hours of training prior to being eligible for an assignment. They swear an oath of confidentiality before a DuPage County judge and are asked to commit at least eighteen months of service (the time by which a case is intended to reach permanency under applicable law). 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 abused and neglected children. The training is comprehensive and is conducted in accordance with nationally established standards. Judges, attorneys, social service providers and other professionals assist in the training process, which includes court observation and covers such topics as 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 families involved in the court process. Advocates must also maintain on-going training by completing at least 12 in-service credit hours per year.
CASA volunteers represent a diverse population from all corners of the county — males and females ranging from recent college graduates to retired individuals, with a variety of professional, educational and ethnic backgrounds. One characteristic they share in common is the desire to make a difference in the life of a child. Advocates are typically assigned one case at a time and stay with the case for the duration it is in the system.
Once appointed to a case, the Advocate takes on the role of the child’s voice in the courtroom, through investigation, facilitation, advocacy and monitoring. The advocate works for the judge, alongside the attorneys and social workers. The CASA advocates for the child by interviewing the families, school officials, doctors and others involved in the child’s life as may be necessary. Additionally, the Advocate gets to know the child one-on-one by visiting the child monthly and devoting attention to the circumstances of the child’s life. The Advocate attends court hearings, school staffings, and administrative case reviews. The Advocate prepares written reports to the court based upon the information gathered prior to court hearings. Such reports also are distributed to all parties. The reports bring to the court’s attention any change in circumstances, as well as progress made towards or failure to comply with the tasks and goals set by the court for achieving permanency for the child. The court may, at its discretion, consider the testimony of the CASA.
Lawyers representing parties in the Juvenile Court system should be familiar with the role a CASA plays in the court process. The Illinois Juvenile Court Act provides that:
The court appointed special advocate shall act as a monitor and shall be notified of all administrative case reviews pertaining to the minor and work with the parties’ attorneys, the guardian ad litem, and others assigned to the minor’s case to protect the minor’s health, safety and best interests and insure the proper delivery of child welfare services. The court may consider, at its discretion, testimony of the court appointed special advocate pertaining to the well-being of the child. 5
Under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997(AFSA), states are required to make reasonable efforts prior to placing a child in foster care to prevent or eliminate the need for removal from his/her home and to make it possible for him to return to his/her home if placed in foster care. However, the child’s health and safety must be the paramount concern in all decisions.
The CASA is uniquely positioned to bring the child’s voice to the court; the Advocate has no agenda, nor any pecuniary or other party interest in the case. Attorneys who are appointed as a guardian ad litem (GAL) or who represent parties in an abuse and/or neglect case should know that the Advocate will bring issues to the court that speak to the child’s best interest. This may or may not also speak to their client’s best interest. If their client is a natural parent who is attempting to comply with the tasks and goals set forth by the court in order to have the child returned home, the CASA’ factual report will reflect such progress. Likewise, if the client is failing to comply with their assigned tasks and goals, such lack of progress will be reflected in the report as well. Similarly, if required services are or are not being delivered to the parents or child, the Advocate will bring this to the attention of the court. While other parties may also be raising the same issues before the court, the Advocate does so from an objective, independent basis and solely to promote the safety, health and best interest of the child. In this regard, the Advocate is not necessarily alone – the State’s Attorney, GAL and the social service provider are all committed to promoting the health, safety and best interest of the child as well. However, “best interest” has no set legal standard, but rather must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The SA, GAL and the agency worker may be assigned to dozens of other cases; the Advocate can devote his or her attention to one case. The Advocate will be focusing their time on the child and will be able to physically visit the child more frequently than others working on the case and can develop a relationship with the child.6 Thus, the Advocate can be a valuable resource to a GAL, by providing factual information about the child’s circumstances. Similarly, the CASA can provide necessary information to attorneys representing natural parents, so they can be better prepared to address their clients’ interests before the court.
Practioners involved in designing legislation and developing programs to benefit abused and neglected children and children in the foster care system may also find a valuable resource in the CASA program. The National CASA Association actively engages in public policy efforts to address the needs of and/or improve the services provided to abused and neglected children in the foster care system. Staff and network members meet with and work with congressional and other governmental bodies on both the state and national levels regarding a variety of relevant issues, such as child welfare financing, education reform, funding for GAL training, and child abuse and treatment programs.7 Likewise, CASA of DuPage County, Inc. welcomes the opportunity to partner with those who seek to promote the health, safety and welfare of our county’s abused and neglected children. Anyone wishing to obtain more information about CASA of DuPage County, Inc. may call Sandy Portincaso, Training Coordinator at (630) 221-0889, ext. 306, or visit www.dupagecasa.org.
1 2003 Annual Report, The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, p. 4.
4 705 ILCS 405/2-17. In some counties, the CASA may also serve as the Guardian Ad Litem. In DuPage County, the court appoints a licensed attorney as GAL, who acts independently of the CASA.
5 705 ILCS 405/2-17.1(2).
6 If there is more than one child in the family who is adjudicated abused or neglected, the Advocate will usually advocate on behalf of all the siblings. On occasion, advocates can partner with another advocate to better serve a large family, particularly when the children are placed in separate foster homes.
7 2003 Annual Report, The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, p. 12.
Kathleen Paravola is an Advocate Supervisor with CASA of DuPage County, Inc. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Eastern Illinois University and her law degree from The DePaul College of Law.
Kathleen Buchanan Bondi is an Advocate Supervisor 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.