Concerned over making decisions about abused and neglected children's lives without sufficient information, a Seattle judge, David Soukup, conceived the idea of using trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of these children in court. In 1977, Judge Soukup established the first Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program.
So successful was this program that other judges across the country soon began utilizing citizen advocates. Today, there is a network of more than 59,000 volunteers that serve abused and neglected children through more than 900 local program offices nationwide.
“As a judge, I had to make tough decisions. I had to decide whether to take a child from the only home he's ever known, or leave him someplace where he might possibly be abused. I needed someone who could tell me what was best for that childâ€”from the child's viewpoint. That's what CASA does.”
—CASA Founder David W. Soukup Seattle, WA 1977
In January 1986, Iowa was the 45th state to adopt the CASA Program. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Ward Reynoldson, the Iowa CASA program began as a pilot project in six counties, three in NW Iowa and three in central Iowa. After two years as a pilot project, the Judicial Branch began expanding the CASA Program, and it was in 30 Iowa counties when the administration of the program was transferred to the Executive branch in 2003.
The program has continued to grow, and, at the request of Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Governor Chester Culver, the 2007 Iowa General Assembly appropriated funds to expand the program statewide. CASA volunteers are now recruited to serve in all of Iowa's 99 counties!
A CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) is a trained community volunteer assigned by a judge to represent the best interests of a child under the Court's jurisdiction due to abuse and neglect. A CASA is required to keep the judge informed about the child's needs and how their needs are being met. The CASA's goal is to see that the child is always in a safe, nurturing place and that everyone is working together to resolve problems and achieve permanency for the child.
“Serving as a CASA has been a most incredible experience! How often do we say, 'I really want to make a difference' and then continue to sit on the couch? In the CASA program, you really can make a difference. You are provided training and support all the way along. For my money, this commitment is one of the best investments I've ever made. This has been an over the top experience.”
—Kay Hooper, CASA Volunteer
The judge assigning the CASA to a case has ordered them to become familiar with all aspects of the child's life. They are expected to keep in regular contact with the child to develop a relationship that allows them to understand and communicate the child's needs and wishes. Each CASA generally is assigned one child or sibling group at a time and typically stays with their assigned case until the child's permanency is established and the case is closed.
Some of a CASA's most important duties are to maintain contact with and collect information from the child's parents; the attorneys and guardians ad litem involved with the case; DHS workers; and, foster parents, therapists, teachers, doctors, relatives and anyone else who has knowledge of the child's situation. Often, a CASA's interactions with all of these people facilitate helpful communication among those involved with the child that might not otherwise occur.
CASAs also attend pre-placement and placement review staffings regarding the child, as well as all family team meetings and court hearings. They collect and review all records pertaining to the child they are assigned, including court files, state agency (DHS) files, school records and medical records. The CASA is always required to treat the information they collect according to all relevant confidentiality laws and rules.
CASAs are required to regularly submit reports to the Court that present the facts of the case, that describe how the Court's orders are being followed and that offer recommendations regarding the child's best interests.
Child abuse and neglect continue to be critical problems in Iowa. Consider these cases:
“In a world that is so busy the CASA program gives you the ability to make your time count by seeing and feeling that you are making a difference in a life of a child.”
—Shantel Pausley, CASA Vol.
These are just a few types of the thousands of cases with which Iowa's judges and child welfare professionals are faced. Each such case is different and every one of them is complicated by many factors. Compared to the dozens of cases for which each social worker, judge, attorney or service provider is responsible, the CASA volunteer typically is assigned just one case at a time. This means the CASA can offer concentrated attention in a way that others are unable due to their large caseloads.
CASAs keep the child's best interest as their focus, and are expected to always maintain their objectivity about the situation. The CASA Program is independent from the rest of the child welfare system and recommendations made on behalf of the child's best interest are the CASA's own--they do not have to mirror those of any other professional on the case. The judge expects the CASA's report to be an independent and objective assessment of the child's situation.
Yes! Studies have shown that children in foster care who have a CASA assigned to them receive more services than those without a CASA and are more likely to find a permanent home. See a summary of independent research for more findings.
“Being a CASA volunteer has been an incredibly rewarding experience because I'm able to advocate for the voices that aren't always heard. Seeing the look on a child's face when he/she can tell me their story and know they're being heard, is priceless. These are the things that generate a passion for volunteering in this capacity.”
—Haley Wikoff, CASA Volunteer
Human Service case workers and other system officials typically carry large caseloads involving many children and complicated family situations. Most are appreciative of the extra time a CASA volunteer can devote to helping insure that an abused or neglected child is not further victimized by either their family or the very system devised to protect the child.
When Iowa judges were surveyed about their experiences with CASAs, all that responded agreed or strongly agreed that CASAs “provide information that you do not get from anyone else” and that “CASAs make a positive impact on the child's case.”
Community volunteers serving as CASAs also help their communities become better informed about child abuse and neglect issues close to home. CASAs can advocate not only for the child they are assigned to, but also for all families by identifying needs in the community that are not being met.
Vounteer! Apply today to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate: Help a neglected child.