The foster care system is crowded with so many children who just need a little bit of guidance and support to make it in this world. Maybe you aren't in a position where you can be a foster parent, but there is another way to connect with a foster child who just needs a stable, reliable adult in her life. A court-appointed special advocate can make a huge difference in a young person's life.
A court-appointed special advocate (CASA) or court-appointed special representative (CASR) is a person who has been trained by the court system to work directly with foster children and be the go-to adult in their lives, their voice in the midst of an often confusing system. Because they are court-appointed, they have the unique ability to really look into the life of a child and advocate for what's best for him individually. There are over 950 CASA organizations currently operating all over the U.S., with 75,000 volunteers who each donate their time to make the life of a foster child better.
"If you look at all of the CASA websites, you will always see the term, 'voice,' or something related to it used," says Suzanne Ordas Curry, president of the county CASA chapter in her New Jersey town. "That's because that is exactly what they are. They are the adult that listens to them and speaks for them. They are the adult that sees everything that goes on and faithfully and impartially advocates on their behalf," she adds.
Suzanne Strisower is a former social worker and foster parent who is passionate about the CASA program. "For me, one of the important things about the CASA representatives is that they are trained by the courts, and because they are a court-sponsored body they have a special connection to the children," she says. CASA volunteers are able to do many things with their kids without jumping through legal hoops because of their special role. "Kids in foster care often have a court-appointed social worker, an agency social worker, a foster family, tutors, a biological family and a CASA representative," says Strisower. "The CASA representative only has an interest in the child, and is just one more person who cares about the child and can play a special role in the child's life. They are fantastic people who go the extra mile and carry a heavy weight with the courts, which can be very helpful," she adds.
"I didn’t have a CASA volunteer appointed to me but I am sure my case would have benefited from one and I would have had a better outcome," shares Devan Petersen, a former foster child who works with youth in an independent living skills program. In her job, she sees the value having a CASA brings to a foster child's life. "These youth have been placed in foster care at no fault of their own, there is this negative stereotype on them, and many are told that they are going to fail," she adds. "CASAs have changed lives in four simple words — 'I believe in you.' These words hold truth and power, because if someone believes in me then it means I can believe in myself and become anything I want to become."
Susan Small is a CASA volunteer in Union County, New Jersey, who was looking for a way to give back to her community that was meaningful to her. "It’s been an amazing and life-changing experience," she shares. "I work with two sisters, ages 10 and 16, and they have become a huge part of my life. I adore them." Small says that her experience as a CASA has not been at all what she expected, but it’s been a very positive experience and she is so happy she took that leap. "We hit it off right away and have a really fun time when hanging out together. They are usually quiet around adults and other people in the court system, especially the younger one. But they are chatterboxes when I’m with them. I love that they feel free and open with me to speak about whatever they like," she adds. "That’s important as a CASA."
Small says the best part of being a CASA is that you are actually making a difference. "Not only are you building a relationship with your CASA kids but you are going to court, speaking with [the] judge and actually getting things done for them. All the lawyers and social workers just look at the children’s basic needs such as food, shelter, etc. But they don’t look at the other stuff that really matters to the kids," she adds. One of her CASA kids really wanted to get involved with after-school activities but had no encouragement or help to make it happen. "I was able to get the judge to put this in the court order and sure enough she was able to join her school dance team," says Small. "It’s great to be a voice for these kids who really don’t have one in the foster care system."
While CASA is a nationwide program, it seems that many people have never heard of it in their communities. "The CASA organization, though national, has seemed to stay under the radar for the most part," Curry shares. "Part of my job as president of my county board is to spread the word. If we had more people aware, we would get more volunteers. If we had more volunteers, we could serve more children. If you can't be an advocate, help your local CASA in another way — there are lots of opportunities for your skills or just your desire to help," she says. "I would encourage anyone, if you have ever considered fostering or adopting, or just have a huge heart for children, this is the place for you."
For more information and to find a CASA organization in your area, visit casaforchildren.org.
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