Short stuff: SpotlightWhen a child enters the foster system, he is surrounded by lawyers, case workers, foster parents, extended family members and judges. But not one of those people is there to act solely in the interests of the child, without prejudice or agendas, no matter how good their intentions.
In the late 1970s, a Seattle Superior Court judge asked for volunteers from his community to make recommendations for children in foster care when he felt the information he received wasn’t enough. Dozens of citizens responded and a new movement was born.
CASAs, Court Appointed Special Advocates, now operate around the country, advocating for hundreds of thousands of neglected foster children each year. In the Chicago area, each county has its own CASA organization to assist children in need.
Executive Director Sharon Hurwitz of CASA of Cook County says there are about 10,000 foster children in Cook County who need a CASA, but they are only able to serve half that amount because more volunteers are needed.
"It’s easy for these kids to fall through the cracks," she says. "Attorneys and caseworkers are overburdened."
CASA volunteers receive 30 hours of intensive training to learn about the foster care system and how to advocate for the children. Volunteers must be 21, but can be either male or female and from any ethnicity. An intense screening process is done to assure the safety of the children.
Feeling passionate about children is a major requirement.
Once assigned to a case, which could be representing one child or a whole family of children, a CASA has important duties to fulfill. While it usually only takes about 10 hours per week for a case, a CASA will have some daytime responsibilities such as making phone calls, going to court and meetings in the case.
"Volunteers do need some flexibility during the day," says Hurwitz.
A CASA will also meet with the assigned child or siblings, school counselors, biological family, the lawyers, social workers and judges. Usually near the conclusion, a CASA will attend court with a written report for the judge and give a recommendation for the child’s future.
CASA of Cook County asks for a commitment of one year, but a volunteer should attempt to stay with their case, even if it takes more than a year. Some cases are more complicated than others.
Elizabeth Dooley of Chicago, a mother of two, has been a CASA volunteer for nine years. "I wanted to do something that would be a direct benefit to children."
She says she gives the kids a voice. "My only job is to look out for that child," says Dooley.
Not only does Dooley feel like she’s done something to help local children, she also feels she has grown personally. In fact, the volunteer experience has been so rewarding that her children, now adults, are also CASAs.
After helping children to find a family, Dooley sometimes feels the pain of letting go, but she knows that she has done her best to find them the very best home.
"It’s not always an actual goodbye," says Dooley. "Sometimes the kids stay in touch with me."
If you are interested in becoming a CASA, contact the National CASA organization through its Web site at www.nationalcasa.org. You can find your local CASA organization by submitting your zip code.
Becoming a CASA makes an impact. According to the National CASA Web site, "90 percent of children do not reenter the child welfare system" once a CASA is involved in their lives.
Or take it from Elizabeth Dooley. "There are so many problems in the world today. Individuals cannot solve every problem. But as an individual, you can make the difference in the life of a child or a family."
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Web site at www.michellesussman.com.
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