What does CASA do?
CASA of Travis County believes every child who's been abused or neglected deserves to have a dedicated advocate speaking up for their best interest in court, at school and in our community. To accomplish this, CASA educates and empowers diverse community volunteers who ensure each child's needs remain a priority in an over-burdened child welfare system.
What is a CASA volunteer?
A CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer is a trained community member who is appointed by a judge to represent the best interest of a child or family of children in the court system. Volunteers spend an average of 15-20 hours a month advocating for these children for at least a year. They get to know the child while also gathering information from the child's family, teachers, doctors, care-givers and anyone else involved in the child's life.
CASA volunteers serve as the guardian ad litem, an official representative in a Child Protective Services (CPS) case entitled to access information about the child's situation and required to make reports to the court in the child's best interest. CASA volunteers speak for what is in the child's best interest while the attorney ad litem speaks on behalf of the child's wants or preferences - often these two opinions differ with serious potential consequences.
Who are the children CASA serves?
In 2013 approximately 2,000 Austin area children were involved with CPS due to alleged abuse or neglect. These children have often been removed from everything familiar - home, family, friends and school - and find themselves in a world filled with social workers, lawyers, judges and courtrooms where life-altering decisions are made on their behalf.
CASA serves children from birth to eighteen. The majority of the children are placed outside of their home with relatives, in foster homes, shelters or residential facilities. Children do not live with their CASA volunteers.
How many children does CASA serve?
Why do children need CASA volunteers?
Most children who enter the child welfare system do so because of alleged abuse or neglect by their primary caregiver. This situation frequently leaves children without a strong adult in their lives to make sure they are safe and their medical, educational, developmental and personal needs are met. The state CPS division is charged with providing these services, but the reality is that the State does not make a good parent. Statewide, CPS caseworkers experienced an 18% turnover rate in 2010. A quarter of CPS workers had less than a year of experience on the job and were assigned to 40 children. The combination of too many children's situations to follow and too little experience hampers CPS's ability to give individualized attention and support to the children they represent.
This is why the committed service of a trained CASA volunteer makes a real difference—to a judge who can depend on CASA for a well-researched recommendation on the child's needs and to the child who has a consistent adult to count on during such a difficult time in their lives
What difference does CASA make for children recovering from abuse or neglect?
- Children with CASA volunteers are more likely to end up with family. Of the 688 children’s cases closed with the help of CASA last year, 55% were reunified with their parents and 21% were adopted by or live permanently with relatives.
- A recent study by Texas Appleseed, "Improving the Lives of Children in Long-term Foster Care," reports that "If a child has a CASA, the CASA usually is the only person who truly knows the child and knows how the child is really doing."
- National CASA reports that children with CASA volunteers are more likely to receive therapy, health care and education, more likely to do better in school, less likely to be bounced from one place to another, less likely to get stuck in long-term foster care and significantly more likely to reach safe, permanent homes.
- A CASA volunteer is often the child's only link to maintaining family connections and can be instrumental in identifying family members as temporary or permanent placement options.
- Most importantly, children themselves report that they know and can rely on their CASA volunteers.
How does CASA get assigned to children?
When the state steps in to protect a child's safety, a judge appoints a trained CASA volunteer to make independent and informed recommendations and help the judge decide what's best for the child. Judges typically assign CASA volunteers to the most difficult and complex cases.
How does someone become a CASA volunteer?
CASA volunteers come from every walk of life. They range in age from 21 to 84, represent various cultural backgrounds and are students, retirees, teachers, firefighters, realtors and many other diverse members of our community. They all share a commitment to improving children's lives, a willingness to learn and an open mind towards life experiences different from their own.
Volunteers complete a screening interview, background and reference checks, and 39 hours of intensive training and courtroom observation. After being sworn-in by a judge, volunteers are appointed to a child or family of children and spend an average of 15-20 hours a month advocating for these children for at least a year. Prospective volunteers must be at least 21 years of age, and undergo criminal and CPS background checks.
How long has CASA existed?
CASA of Travis County was created in 1985 by concerned community members and judges and was the fourth CASA program in Texas - following the creation of the national CASA model by a Seattle family court judge in 1977.
How is CASA funded (2014 budget)?
- 30% - Government Grants
- 24% - Foundation Grants
- 21% - Fundraising Events
- 25% - Individual/Corporate Contributions/Workplace Giving
What is the cost to provide a CASA volunteer to one child?
CASA of Travis County's cost per child per year is $1500, which covers all aspects of providing a trained volunteer and a professional staff member to support them. The guardian ad litem services CASA provides are professional services defined by the Texas Family Code and without CASA's more than 550 trained community volunteers to provide these services, attorneys or professional social workers would have to be paid on a per client, per hour basis. In Austin, guardian ad litem services through other entities in other kinds of cases can range from a flat fee of $2,700 for one case to as much as $75/hour for cases that could take a full year. The cost savings of providing guardian ad litem services through a non-profit organization with trained volunteers is immense, and National CASA studies have found that CASA volunteers spend significantly more time with a child than a paid guardian ad litem.
What is the difference between CASA of Travis County and:
- Child Protective Services (CPS), a division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, investigates reports of abuse and neglect of children, places children in foster care and places children in adoptive homes. State budget cuts mean CPS workers have high case loads and staff turnover is high. CASA volunteers serve in the role of an advocate for a child to ensure that the state is being responsive to the child's individual needs. CASA provides helpful insight and recommendations that go into the service planning and placement decisions. CASA also has the freedom to advocate in the Court for what is best for a child within reasonable means without the constraints of policies and procedures of a state agency. CASA volunteers are often the only adult who remains constant in a child's life during the 12-18 months their case is open.
- Big Brothers Big Sisters matches adult volunteer mentors with children, ages 6-16, who have been voluntarily enrolled in the program by their parents or other adults in their lives. CASA volunteers are court-appointed to children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, and because of their legal role they have access to the child's otherwise confidential information, including teachers, therapists and doctors. The CASA volunteer will serve as a consistent and trustworthy adult in the child's life, but will go beyond mentoring by making official recommendations to the court in the child's best interest.
- LifeWorks provides a network of services including shelter, counseling and life skills training to youth and families. Many of the older youth CASA serves utilize this valuable community resource for help in the transition to independence and adulthood, and CASA often works closely with LifeWorks to help the youth we serve become successful adults.
- The Center for Child Protection provides child-friendly forensic interviews, exams and counseling for children who've experienced abuse or witnessed violence. Many of the children CASA serves have received services from the Center for Child Protection. The Center focuses on the criminal aspects of child abuse cases while CASA advocates for children in the civil cases brought by CPS to protect the children.
- Austin Children's Shelter provides a safe home for children in crisis. Most children at the Austin Children's Shelter have been removed from their homes by CPS because of severe abuse or neglect. CASA serves many youth who have been placed at the Austin Children's Shelter for some period of time.
What are some specific programs and initiatives CASA is working on?
- Volunteer Recruitment - CASA is constantly recruiting and training new volunteers to advocate for children who've been abused or neglected. We are looking for volunteers from every walk of life; one does not have to have any previous experience in social work or be a lawyer to volunteer with CASA, as our training program will cover everything you need to know. We do ask that volunteers have a commitment to improving children's lives, a willingness to learn and an open mind towards life experiences different from their own. Visit casatravis.org/volunteer to learn more.
- Transitioning Youth Project - This project provides children at risk of aging out of the foster care system with a greater ability to achieve success as independent, healthy adults through specialized advocacy. Along with continuing to look for healthy permanent homes, CASA's main focus is empowerment through preparation, education and healthy connections for these youth. Our volunteers and staff work to provide them opportunities to establish positive goals and direction for their future with healthy relationships and community resources. By implementing this program, CASA is changing the approach traditionally taken with children in "Long-Term Foster Care" in order to achieve more successful outcomes.
- Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court - CASA is a partner in the Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court along with Travis County Health & Human Services, the Travis County District Courts, CPS and numerous other local service providers. The Drug Court partnership serves families in the child protection system for whom substance abuse is the primary factor in child neglect. The approach is family-focused and all-encompassing, addressing all of the needs of the family that might be hindrances to their success, and helping the parents provide safe and appropriate homes for their children. CASA of Travis County is appointed to serve as guardian ad litem for all children whose parents participate in Drug Court.
- Crossover Docket - CASA of Travis County is one of the few CASA programs in Texas which serves youth with co-occurring CPS and juvenile justice cases in both court systems. Our volunteers and staff have become cross-trained and knowledgeable so that we can effectively advocate in juvenile justice courts as we do in CPS courts. CASA has also been an active participant in local efforts to streamline hearings and court processes so that youth and their families do not have to experience multiple repetitive hearings and so that the judges have more comprehensive information about issues in both the CPS and juvenile justice cases. Travis County is currently conducting a project to hear these "crossover cases" in one setting that will address both sets of issues and that will include both CPS and juvenile probation staff; CASA of Travis County is being appointed to advocate for 100% of these crossover youth.
- Diversity/Inclusiveness - As CASA strives to become a more inclusive and diverse program, we provide training and other opportunities for volunteers to continue developing their cultural competence in working with children and families from various backgrounds. CASA is also working alongside other community stakeholders to address racial disparities in the child welfare system so that we can try to ensure all children experience positive outcomes. We are actively recruiting volunteers from more diverse segments of the community and since 2009 have seen a steady increase in the number of African-American and Hispanic volunteers assigned to cases. In 2012 we were awarded the “Award of Excellence for Inclusion” by National CASA for this work.
- Educational Advocacy - As of October 2013, CASA is being appointed by judges as the official “education advocate” to school-aged children in addition to being appointed as guardian ad litem as we always have been. Our volunteers serving as official education advocates will have a strong positive impact on educational outcomes for the children we serve, especially those who have experienced multiple school transfers and are at risk of falling behind in their education.
- Family Finding Program - Through a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, CASA of Travis County has created a staff position and volunteer opportunity with the sole purpose of finding family for Travis County children in foster care. The Family Finding Specialist will develop, train and support experienced volunteers to locate and connect youth with family and supportive adults. Often extended family members are unaware a child is in foster care, especially if they are out of touch with the child's family. Whether family can offer a permanent home, links to a child's heritage or simply the promise of a supportive adult in a child's life, youth in foster care who have healthy connections to family are more likely to thrive in any environment.
- Trauma-Informed Care - We are working to become a more “trauma-informed” organization. This means that every part of our agency strives to have a basic understanding of how trauma is affecting children. This includes the trauma of the abuse or neglect they have suffered, the trauma of being removed from their home by Child Protective Services, or the trauma of many other potentially harmful experiences in their young lives. For children whose exposure to trauma overwhelms their ability to cope with what they have experienced, CASA is working to support their individual needs to help them heal. We have formed a task force of staff members who are building a directory of trauma-focused therapy providers, identifying resources that we can advocate for and implementing additional specialized training for staff and volunteers.