SCAN’s Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program is a key component of our child advocacy work, and people often ask us about the program’s unique format and impact. Today our CASA Program Director LaTeeka Turner is sharing some of the most common questions we get from child welfare professionals and child advocates about this important, effective program:
Q: Who are CASA volunteers (also known as “CASAs”)?
A: CASAs are trained volunteers appointed by a local Judge to help the Judge determine what is in the child’s best interest. SCAN oversees the CASA Program for the City of Alexandria and Arlington County, working closely with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
Q: What does a CASA volunteer do?
A: CASAs are responsible for taking the time to find out as much information as possible about the appointed child and the child’s circumstances through reviewing relevant records and interviewing all relevant people involved in the case, most importantly, the child. CASAs then submit a written report to the Court to recommend to the Judge what they believe is best for the child’s future. In all cases, CASA volunteers advocate for safe and permanent homes for children.
Q: What kind of training do CASAs go through?
A: Each individual is subject to a thorough screening process, including background checks, interviews, and thirty-two hours of initial training to learn about the human service system, juvenile court, and issues such as substance abuse and mental health as well as the special needs of children who are involved in custody and in abuse and neglect cases. After being sworn in by the Judge as official CASAs, volunteers must complete at least twelve hours of additional in-service training each year.
Q: Do CASA volunteers understand the importance of confidentiality?
A: Yes! CASAs must take an oath before the Court that requires them to fulfill the roles assigned to them and to do so while respecting the confidentiality of all information and/or reports revealed to them. CASAs are trained to only share information with direct parties to the case and only the direct parties to the case will have access to review the CASA reports submitted to the Judge.
Q: Can CASA volunteers provide direct services?
A: No, CASAs do not provide direct services to the child, such as supervising visitation or transporting the child.
Q: How is a CASA different from the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)?
A: CASAs are unpaid volunteers and the GAL is an attorney representing the legal interests of your child.CASAs are not a party to the case and cannot bring a child’s case back before the Judge. The CASA’s role is one of a “Friend of the Court” and an impartial observer, conducting an investigation as the Judge would if time permitted.
Q: How do CASAs determine the child’s best interest?
A: CASAs talk with the child, parents, foster parents, other family members, social worker, teachers, attorneys, and anyone else who is important to the child. They make home visits to observe the child at least 1-2 times a month, and may also meet with the child in school or at another designated location. CASAs also review relevant records regarding the child such as attendance records or health records.
Q: What do CASAs do with the information that they learn about the child?
A: CASAs submit a written report to the Court detailing what he/she has learned from interviews, observations, and record reviews. The report also contains recommendations for what the CASA believes is in the child’s best interest. In all cases, CASAs advocate for safe and permanent homes for children.
Q: Who gets to read the CASA report?
A: The Judge, the attorneys, the assigned social workers, and the child’s Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). The reports cannot be shared or redistributed to others outside of the case per the Code of Virginia which sites the following:
Time for filing of reports; copies furnished to attorneys; Amended reports; fees.
…… “All attorneys receiving such report or amended report shall return such to the clerk upon the conclusion of the hearing and shall not make copies of such report or amended report or any portion thereof.
Q: Can CASA provide a copy of their report to someone else?
A: Unfortunately, we are not permitted to share CASA reports outside of their submission to the Court. This is a regulation from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services(DCJS) which governs CASA and the Code of Virginia. The CASA report is the property of the Juvenile court therefore we cannot distribute the reports and that is why they are filed at the Clerk’s office and distributed from there and the clerk’s office is charged with retrieving them from parties after the hearing.
The Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program is one of nearly 1,000 local CASA programs across the country affiliated the National CASA Program. Learn more about SCAN’s CASA Program here.
Volunteers in our CASA Program are one of the most powerful examples of a positive adult connection in a child’s life we can think of. Our Kids Need Connections campaign celebrates the nurturing, transformative power of positive adult relationships in the lives of children. For abused and neglected children who already find themselves in the system, a CASA volunteer might be one of the last few positive adult connections a child still has. Foster parents fall into this same category. May is Foster Care Awareness Month, an opportunity to think about these critical connections for at-risk children. National CASA CEO Michael Piraino recently offered an excellent perspective on how foster care and positive connections can affect real change on a larger scale:
A glaring hole in the foster care data on well-being is information on the number, quality, and consistency of adult relationships for children. For years, it has been understood that a consistent and appropriate adult presence is a key factor in a child’s well-being. More recently, research has added to the understanding of what such a relationship should look like, how it can affect healthy development, and why children should be surrounded by multiple relationships that contribute to his or her healthy development. The Search Institute, well-known for its excellent work in identifying the key developmental assets in a child’s life, is now looking into the importance of what it calls “developmental relationships” for children. These are relationships that are caring, supportive, inspire growth, share power and expand possibilities for children and young people. For foster youth, these characteristics can typically be found among CASA and volunteer guardian ad litem programs, and in well-designed mentoring programs.
Research elsewhere has begun to confirm that children’s well-being may be dramatically improved if the adults who have these developmental relationships with children also help them develop a “mindset” that is oriented toward growth and success. The key point is this: mindsets can be changed. Developing a growth mindset can allow you to move beyond adverse experiences and help you follow strategies that are in your best interest according to Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
We also know that when young people, particularly adolescents, develop a balanced understanding of the positive and negative futures they might face, they are much more likely to be able to work around the negative and back to the positive. These “balanced possible selves” can lead to improvements in academic success, behavior, and rates of depression.
What is particularly exciting about this research is the potential it has for positively affecting the educational success and mental health of foster youth, even in the absence of large scale system reforms. By strengthening relationships that protect foster youth from the effects of adverse childhood experiences, we can help them build on their own strengths so that the trauma they have experienced does not become a permanent barrier in their lives.
Every abused or neglected child in the nation’s foster care systems should have a well-trained, caring adult to speak up for them and help assure their healthy development and well-being.
Our Alexandria/Arlington CASA volunteers are intimately aware of the local foster care system, its challenges, and its impact. As they work closely with families here in our community, we also keep an eye on foster care and adoption trends around the country, which is why this recent post from National CASA CEO Michael Piraino caught our eye. We’ll certainly remain focused in our work on Mr. Piraino’s challenge — to “ensure all children in foster care achieve positive outcomes regardless of geography, economic circumstances, or such factors as race or ethnicity” — and we hope you will too.
For several years, CASA volunteers and staff around the country have been concerned about an ominous trend. Despite a general decline in the number of children in foster care, the family courts were requesting more volunteer advocates for more and more foster youth. Additionally, the children who had CASA and guardian ad litem advocates were coming from more challenging home situations. It is a sadly familiar pattern we have seen after previous recessions.
Last year we also noted that the decline in children in foster care was leveling off. The new numbers now confirm what our volunteers feared might happen. The number of children in foster care nationwide increased in 2013 for the first time in seven years. At the same time, we have received a report that child welfare spending actually declined nationwide between 2010 and 2012. That’s the first time spending has gone down in twenty years.
This drop in spending is not accounted for by the declining numbers from 2012, according to Child Trends’ research. Plus, now that we know the number of children in care is rising again, it looks like a perfect storm: less money for services, but more children, from more difficult circumstances, coming into care…[Read the full blog post on National CASA’s Blog here.]
Imagine a preschool child who has great fun on the school playground but every time he hears the teacher say it is time to go back inside, he tends to go the other direction. He’s hard to “corral” back into the building and then has trouble concentrating or focusing on the next activity. His teachers get frustrated because they see this as “acting out” and “being difficult” and they even wonder about ADHD…
But what if you also knew this little boy had been sexually abused; that even though he’s now in a safe home environment, there’s something about that hallway back into the classroom and the way the lighting changes that reminds him viscerally of the traumas he endured at such a young age. He’s too young to understand that connection but his body language and behaviors communicate for him.
How does knowing this additional information change your advice for those involved? Anxiety, behavior problems, concentration problems, interpersonal conflicts and physical symptoms like stomachaches can be symptoms caused by trauma.
Is there a better way to respond to this vulnerable child? Absolutely. The move toward trauma-informed practice is designed to help us think differently about how we address, treat and interact with children – and with parents who may have suffered trauma themselves during childhood.
SCAN of Northern Virginia’s Allies in Prevention Coalition recently met to learn more about trauma-informed practice and how professionals working with children and families can use an awareness of the signs and consequences of trauma to more effectively address the needs of children and families with whom we work.
“There is always hope,” said Cynthia Agbayani, a panelist at the meeting from Lifeworks Outreach Services in Woodbridge. “We want to talk to children in terms of being survivors and heroes instead of victims.” Trauma-informed practice can help. With trauma-informed practice, practitioners infuse trauma awareness, knowledge, and skills into their work with children and families. They work collaboratively, using the best available science, to screen and treat children and help them develop resiliency.
Many jurisdictions now have trauma screenings for children in the child welfare system and use evidence-based or promising interventions, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT adapts traditional cognitive behavioral therapy to be trauma-sensitive for children with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other problems related to traumatic life experiences, as well as their parents. Children and parents work to develop skills for processing the trauma; managing distressing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and enhancing safety, parenting skills, and family communication.
Trauma-informed practice is not just about therapy – it’s a change in the way we think about behavior and the survivor’s need for healing, safety and support. “You want to demonstrate this practice and engage parents to model it as well,” said Ann Knefel, with Fairfax County DFS, who also participated on the panel. CASA volunteers, caregivers, social workers, lawyers, therapists and others each have a role to play in ensuring children have access to trauma-informed care. To learn more about the principles of trauma-informed care, visit some of these resources:
The Alexandria/Arlington Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program provides trained volunteers appointed by the Court to serve as a direct voice for children in the juvenile court system. Volunteers conduct interviews with the children, families, and professionals involved in the case, monitor compliance with the Court orders, and attend Court hearings where they advocate for the best interest of the child.
97 percent of judges agree that children and families are better served because of CASA volunteer involvement.
97 percent agree than the personal knowledge that CASA volunteers have about children is beneficial to the judges’ decision-making.
Judges particularly value volunteers’ ability to consider the best interests of children and monitor the case.
More rigorous studies, such as those that randomly assign children to a CASA volunteer or a control condition, would be invaluable to help better isolate and quantify the impact of CASA volunteers.
While CASA volunteers love their role and want to help children, we all wish that the CASA role wasn’t necessary. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on a great way to prevent abuse and neglect from happening in the first place – home visiting programs for new parents.
CASA volunteers advocate for the best interests of many of these children in court. In Alexandria and Arlington, 77 volunteers served 177 children in 2012. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on how CASA volunteers can make a difference in the lives of abuse and neglected children.
NEXT IN THE CASA ASKS SERIES: HOW CAN HOME VISITING PREVENT CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT? Subscribe here to receive an email when posts are published.
Navigating the ins and outs of the court system, families, teachers, doctors and all the people involved in a child’s life can be daunting, but we recently had the opportunity to celebrate someone who makes it look easy – Ann Caulkins, one of our CASA Program staff members. Ann volunteered with SCAN’s CASA Program for 5 years before she joined our staff 10 years ago. Since then her advocacy has touched the lives of hundreds of children in the local court system because of abuse and neglect.
Last week SCAN had a party in her honor. In case you weren’t there, we wanted to share some pictures with you (take a look below…)
Quite the crowd came out to celebrate Ann – CASA volunteers, staff and board members. Here's Ann being congratulated by SCAN founder Dave Cleary.
The party's theme was Adventures in CASAland, so there had to be an Adventures in CASAland board game…and here’s Ann examining herself as a board game piece…she has really “arrived” now.
Here’s another long-time CASA, Sabrina Black, and CASA staff Dana Taylor trying to find their CASA children safe and permanent homes in the Adventures in CASAland game – Dana looks like she may have won this round.
At the end of the evening, Ann shared some of her thoughts about what keeps her going and her appreciation for all the volunteers and staff and community members she works with who help her really see the impact our work has…thank you again, Ann. We couldn’t do it without you!
FANCY FREE TUESDAY:
Wait, Tuesday!? Yep – that’s right. We’re doing a very special giveaway early this week (instead of our usual Fancy Free Friday). That’s because the big giveaway is THREE REDSKINS vs. Steelers tickets for the game THIS FRIDAY, August 12th, plus a parking pass!
How to enter to win? Simply comment below with your own favorite memory about volunteering – OR your favorite memory with Ann over the past 15 years – and you’ll be entered to win. Comment AND subscribe to the blog and you get an extra entry!
We’ll announce the winner first thing Thursday morning…so you have plenty of time to pick up your tickets at the SCAN office before the big game.