What it means to be a CASA volunteer
When a child enters the foster care system because his or her home is no longer safe, a judge may appoint a committed volunteer to help them. That volunteer is called a Court Appointed Special Advocate®, or CASA.
CASA volunteers are screened and highly trained and then appointed by judges to represent and advocate for a child’s best interests in the child protection system. CASA volunteers are each assigned to help one child or set of siblings at a time, so they can focus on giving that child or sibling group the individualized advocacy and attention they need. CASA volunteers save taxpayers money and children’s futures by helping children find a safe, permanent homes as soon as possible.
CASA continues to provide valuable volunteer advocacy for every abused child in the Hill Country. CASA volunteers serve as the “eyes and ears” for the judge in child welfare cases. This includes researching each child’s situation and making objective recommendations to help them reclaim their childhoods from abuse and neglect. CASA volunteers are frequently the only stable presence in these children’s lives as they navigate the foster care system.These volunteers bring three critical qualities to their work: they focus on one case at a time; they bring a unique perspective to the court case; and their sole objective is representing the best interests of the child.
Ways to get involved:
By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA
Almost daily, there’s a story on TV or in the newspaper revealing new statistics indicating the state of Texas’ troubled child welfare system.
As discouraging as these numbers can be, it’s important to not shy away from them. After all, they reveal key information, pulling back the curtain to give a glimpse of a struggling system. Too often, though, we can get stuck on the negatives, and forget that there are dedicated groups and individuals creating positives, and working to turn the negatives around, to better the lives of Texas children.
Today, I want to delve into some statistics together. After all, it’s been said that every number tells a story – the numbers I want to discuss are all connected to reveal the bigger story of not only where our system is currently, but more importantly, where we are headed.
Texas ranks a staggering 41st of the 50 states on overall child well-being according to the recently released Annie E. Casey Foundation 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book. Though this is a slight improvement from our ranking of 43rd in 2016, there is little cause for celebration when you view our state profile and consider the fact that 23 percent of Texas kids are still living in poverty, and 58 percent of preschool-aged children are not in school.
48,795 children were in our state’s child protection system in 2016 due to abuse or neglect – a system that has reached its breaking point, plagued by caseworker turnover, work overload, and placement shortages. A system that a federal judge in 2015 ruled fails to protect the children in its care, and violates their Constitutional right to be “free from an unreasonable risk of harm.”
Last year, 1,250 children left the Texas foster care system at only 18 years old without finding a permanent home. Kids who “age out” of the system at age 18 are too often unprepared for adulthood and lack the support they need to succeed – facing the possibility of bleak outcomes like homelessness, incarceration and mental health illnesses.
It can be easy to look at numbers like these and lose hope – to only see the issues and barriers weighing down our system. I’m here to tell you that the tides are turning. I am not losing hope for our children, and neither should you, because there are other numbers that tell a different side of the story.
The Texas Legislature hit the ground running and filed 525 bills related to families and juveniles during the 85thSession. By session’s end, significant reforms reached the Governor’s desk, including a $508.5 million funding increase for DFPS that comes during what was an otherwise rigid budget cycle — highlighting how dedicated the Legislature was to making child welfare reform a priority.
Helping to advocate for many of the child welfare reforms this session were 27 Legislative Advocacy Teams (LATs) led by volunteer advocates and board members from local CASA programs across the state. The LATs worked with our Public Policy team to build relationships with their local legislators, help develop policy agendas to improve the child welfare system, and advocate for positive systemic change at the grassroots level.
The regular 85th Legislative Session was a challenging 140 days – a challenge that our Public Policy team could not have met without these teams’ dedicated support.
Over the course of the session, the LATs responded to more than 50 action alerts in support of legislative efforts. Thanks in no small part to this advocacy, the Texas CASA Public Policy team and our child welfare partners were able to accomplish many of our top legislative priorities this session, including measures to:
- ensure all child abuse and neglect reports are investigated in a thorough, consistent and timely manner,
- increase foster care and kinship capacity,
- increase caseworker pay and lower caseloads, and more.
These changes and others that were enacted during the 85th Session give me hope because they show that Texas is working to do better for our kids. Though it will be a gradual process, the legislature is taking positive steps to improve the system and the lives of the children in its care – but while we await this needed reform, CASA stands firm and protects the best interest of children today.
This fiscal year so far, the CASA network in Texas has already reached a landmark total of 9,379 volunteer advocates.* Last year, there was a statewide total of 9,131 volunteers, which means we’ve already surpassed our total number of volunteer advocates from the entire previous year by more than 200 – and we still have a full quarter to go.
So far this year, CASA volunteers have spoken up for the best interests of 26,277 children in the Texas foster care system* – more than half of the children in care. Thanks to the CASA community’s passion and commitment to growth, the CASA mission is alive and spreading faster than ever before.
There are three ways that you can contribute to fueling our cause – making it easier than ever before to give the gift of hope to children in foster care.
- Volunteer. Ready to speak up for a child who needs you? Visit BecomeACASA.org to locate and contact your local CASA program, and take the first step towards becoming a CASA volunteer.
- Nominate. If you know someone who has what it takes to speak up for children, let them know by nominating them to become a CASA volunteer today.
- Give. A donation to Texas CASA is an investment in the power of the CASA community and the future of Texas’ children. Consider making a gift to Texas CASA today.
Our growth this past year highlights that when backed by the proper support and resources, the passion, dedication and spirit of the CASA network is contagious. I have no doubt that we will one day cover the state and provide a CASA volunteer for every child who needs one – and if our progress is any indication, that day will come sooner than we think.
Steve Jobs said, “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.” Will you be the one to change the world for a child in care?
By completing any of the three steps above, you can become a part of the statewide CASA community that is changing the world for Texas children by recruiting and training dedicated volunteer advocates to speak up for their best interest, and leading the charge for positive systemic change that will better the lives of children in state care.
I have hope that there will be a day when CASA is no longer needed because every child, in Texas and beyond, has the safe, positive future and loving family that they deserve. Until then, with your support, we will continue the charge for our children and work tirelessly to provide a CASA volunteer for every child in care.
Every child has a chance – it’s you! ®
*From the CASA network’s Fiscal Year 2017, Quarter 3 Performance Measures. This total spans the time period of Sept. 1, 2016 – May 31, 2017.