When children are abused or severely neglected, they must rely on adults to help them obtain justice and services. Who deserves an advocate more than an abused or neglected child? That is the intent of the social service and Family Court systems, but all too often these systems are fraught with escalating caseloads and reduced resources. Juvenile Court judges are facing increasingly complex cases, limited support services, and at times disjointed, insufficient or outdated information on which to make sound decisions.
The heart of our program is the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a specially trained and supervised community volunteer, appointed by a Family Court judge. CASAs make a difference in the lives of abused and neglected children by investigating and monitoring cases involving children in foster care. Our job at CASA El Dorado is to recruit, screen, train and then support the CASA advocates who become sworn-in officers of the court, empowered to serve the needs of this often forgotten population of children.
CASA's take only one or two cases at a time, allowing ample time to gather thorough information. They build relationships with their "CASA" kids, spending time with them, gathering facts about their life so they can report back to the judge who can then make a much better decision as to what is best for the child. These decisions can have life-altering ramifications. They help the judge decide what services are most appropriate right now to help the children to recover from their abuse and/or neglect; services that tend to their mental and physical health. Our advocates ultimately help judges to decide what placement options are the best for that child, in his or her circumstances. Although reunification with the family is always the overarching goal, unfortunately sometimes this is not possible. Therefore, our advocates might also recommend adoption, kinship care with another relative, or other placement alternatives that will best suit the needs of that child.
Based on a national audit of CASA programs mandated by Congress and carried out by the Department of Justice, we know that the following outcomes are possible when a CASA advocate is involved in the life of a foster child:
· More services: Foster children who are served by a CASA advocate receive more services to help them recover from their abuse or neglect.
· Less time in foster care: Children who have a CASA in their lives are half as likely to end up in ‘long term foster care’ (three years or longer).
· Improved recidivism rates: Children who exit the child welfare system with the help of a CASA advocate are 50% less likely to renter the system.
In 2012 CASA El Dorado served more than 350 abused or neglected children throughout El Dorado County. We accomplished this with a staff of nine, between our two offices in Placerville and South Lake Tahoe. Moreover, we were able to do this because of the efforts of over 200 volunteer advocates who donated over 8,000 hours of their time. Significantly, we served more than twice the children at half the cost, relative to median state averages for CASA programs throughout the state.