A Voice for the Vulnerable: The CASA Volunteer
When a child is placed in foster care after being abused and neglected and is asked to testify in the courtroom, who speaks up in their best interests? Who is in tune to their needs and well-being, and makes sure that their voice is heard? Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) fill this role. These trained citizen volunteers advocate for children as they navigate through the court process. They collect and provide critical information to the courtroom, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the child has a permanent, safe and loving home.
The benefits of children having someone who is dedicated to their best interests, and theirs only, is remarkable. This is shown through data cited by the National CASA Association for Children, the national organization founded in 1977 that supports over 951 community-based programs throughout the nation. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect, and are paired with a CASA volunteer, are more likely to find a safe, permanent home and to succeed in school, and half as likely to re-enter the foster care system.
While Rock Island County originally had been home to a CASA program, the program lost funding years ago. In 2018, the Child Abuse Council received a generous grant from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to kickstart a CASA program in Rock Island County once again.
The program is headed by Amanda Striegel, who arrived at the CAC with 15 years of social work under her belt-- experience she says gives her an excellent foundation of knowledge of the child welfare system as well as an integral understanding of the impact abuse and neglect have on children. Amanda worked to build the CASA program from the ground up and drives to continue to grow it. She performs many duties, including training, supervising, and advising the volunteer advocates. She also accompanies the advocates to meetings with the child and their family, as well as court hearings. Additionally, she is in charge of the recruitment of new volunteers.
Almost three years since the program began, the efforts of hard work are showing. The first class of training included seven advocates. As of February 2021, Rock Island County now boasts eighteen CASA volunteers. So far, the program has closed three cases successfully, with each of the children being placed in safe and loving homes. Several other cases are currently on their way to being successfully closed as well.
The heart and soul of the program is centered around the citizen-advocates who respond to the calling to help the little ones who have experienced so much trauma. CASA volunteers do not have to have a background in social work or hold special knowledge of any kind-- that is what training is for. Amanda explains that the most important quality of a CASA volunteer is a passion for kids. She also looks for prospective candidates who are caring and compassionate.
Carrie M. is one of the eighteen current CASA volunteers who responded to the call. She has been a volunteer for two years now, and first learned about the CASA program from a press release in the newspaper. She says, “I drove around with that newspaper in my car, wondering if I would be capable of such a responsibility.” She explains that being a CASA is completely outside the scope of work that she does on a daily basis. Yet, she ultimately decided to give it a try. “I finally got the nerve to call, and I’m so glad I did.”
No matter the background or previous experience the CASA holds, advocates undergo training that covers all essential knowledge needed to ready each individual. Training is spread over the course of nine weeks, with three hours dedicated per week. The National CASA curriculum is used, in which trainees learn about the child welfare system and juvenile court system. They also cover topics such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), domestic violence, and substance abuse. Additionally, they walk through how to interview individuals and how to talk with kids. Carrie calls the training “thorough and consistent”, noting it equips volunteers with all the skills needed to be a successful advocate.
Once the volunteer goes through the training, they are ready to begin work. After a judge sends a referral, Amanda assigns a CASA volunteer to the case. CASA volunteers are then required to stay on that case until it is closed. Each volunteer handles only one case at a time, and cases typically last around one to two years.
A CASA volunteer has several responsibilities. They collect information from several different sources, including the child, teachers, foster parents, family members, and other individuals close to the child. The child’s voice is particularly important; the CASA needs to take what they say into consideration on how to best support them and their needs and protect their well-being.
After collecting the information, the CASA worker shares it with the caseworker assigned to the child to make sure all parties are up to date. They also use the information to write case reports for each court hearing, which are given to the judge, the attorneys, and the guardian ad litem on the case. The insight from the CASA volunteer within the case report is taken into consideration by the judge, which Carrie finds to be very rewarding. She says, “It really feels like what we do makes a difference.”
Through her experience as a CASA, Carrie notes she has “learned so much about the foster care system and how to have a positive impact.” She goes on to say, “The need for volunteers is great and so is the reward for those of us who have a heart for service.”
Amanda echoes Carrie’s sentiment about needing more volunteers in order to grow the program and increase the scope of the CASA impact. She says: “My goal would be for every child to have a CASA.” While she acknowledges this is not currently feasible due to the larger number of the children in the system compared to the number of volunteers, she truly believes in the positive impact of advocates in the children’s lives.
And Amanda has nothing but high praise for the current advocates.
“Our volunteers are very caring, committed individuals that just want the best for these kiddos. And this is a volunteer position--they’re not getting paid to do this. They go through all this training and advocate for the children. They’re really good people. I’m very proud of all my volunteers.”