Reflections on a Year of CASA Advocacy

April 28, 2021

By Felicia Saunders, Field Center Administrative Coordinator

Joining the Field Center team two years ago filled me with a sense of pride and gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my work at Penn. It was an honor to know I’d be supporting a small but mighty team in such important work on behalf of maltreated children. I was very impressed with Field Center endeavors that included groundbreaking research on the intersection between sex trafficking and child maltreatment among homeless young adults, involvement in crafting the legislation that led to Pennsylvania’s Fostering Independence Tuition Waiver Program as well as a Philadelphia Family Court-based outreach program called Project PENN.

When I had the opportunity to visit Family Court and observe our Project PENN student interns in action providing information and assistance to families waiting to be seen, I also had the chance to learn about Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). CASA volunteers advocate on the behalf of children who are before the court because they have experienced abuse or neglect. Most of the children served are in foster care. It has been found that that children who have been assigned CASA volunteers tend to spend less time in court and less time in the foster care system than those who do not have CASA representation. Judges have observed that CASA advocated children also have better chances of finding permanent homes. I became intrigued by the notion that regular people could have a positive impact on the lives of children in their own communities who had been affected by the child welfare system. This idea was very appealing to me as I had actually considered being a foster parent at one time, but wasn’t sure if it would be a good fit for me. I was excited to realize I could be helpful as a CASA volunteer and glad to know I would have the support of the Field Center team backing me up as I took on this role.

The six weeks of volunteer training was very thorough in educating us on things like recognizing signs of and risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Certain statistics and information were infuriating, as well as heartbreaking at times. As of December 2019, our area of Camden County had the highest rate of children with emotional and behavioral health care challenges, developmental and intellectual disabilities and substance use challenges being served by New Jersey’s Children’s System of Care (CSOC). The essence of our role as CASA volunteers was to work to ensure the safety and well-being of New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens – abused and neglected children and youth in foster care and other out-of-home placements. CASA programs served 48% of New Jersey’s children in foster care last year. In spite of the intensity and volume of information, receiving a comprehensive toolkit on how to be a powerful advocate was a very rewarding experience. Another benefit was the opportunity to meet and interact with other individuals passionate and concerned about the welfare of children in our area. There were people from all walks of life participating in the training like a retired judge, a current foster parent and a domestic abuse hotline coordinator. The presenters also showed a commitment to serving children as they provided trainees with a wealth of knowledge and life lessons as some had first-hand experience in our state’s child welfare system.

The completion of training gave me a sense of accomplishment and excitement but also gave me a bit of trepidation as I felt the weight of my role to be a bit intimidating. I didn’t want to forget any important information or make any mistakes that could possibly affect the child I was assigned to in an adverse way. Several of the procedures we had been briefed on were completely altered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But adjustments were made and I embarked on my journey of advocacy. In March 2020, I was officially sworn in as CASA volunteer by the NJ Court (via virtual ceremony). At times it was a bit difficult to feel like I was getting a full grasp of the actual environment my client was in because physical visits were replaced with FaceTime check-ins. Virtual Court Hearings were also a bit daunting as it was a challenge to keep track of all those present when I couldn’t identify parties by their positions in the court room.

Despite the thorough training, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges of maneuvering the system, including the slow flow of information and the lack of interstate coordination between agencies. Once, I experienced several hours of complete panic when I had to wait overnight to find out where my client had been temporarily placed while their Resource Parent vacationed. I reached out to arrange a check-in, only to be told that I’d have to get the temporary caregiver’s contact information from the caseworker, to then find that the caseworker was on furlough! When I reached out to the supervisor, I was told I’d be provided with the information the following day. I was filled with dread feeling like I had dropped the ball and “lost my client”. Later, I wondered how easy it would have been for all interested parties to receive a quick email keeping them updated on relevant case information.

At one point, I was surprised by the assignment of a brand new caseworker that had to get caught up on all the details of the case and seemed to be starting from scratch several months into the placement. However, I came to realize that transitions among caseworkers is quite common in child welfare, and the services provided to children and families, and the amount of information provided to other professionals, including CASAs, is often caseworker-dependent.

Serving as a CASA forces system-involved professionals and volunteers to consider complex factors in ensuring child safety, such as whether or not a family has the resources in place to safely raise a child. My experience has definitely had me grappling with the issue of child safety vs. family preservation and has given me a better understanding of the need to provide families who are struggling the tools and guidance they need to provide a stable environment for their children. It is very encouraging to see extended families come together to care for children when parents cannot. My work and volunteerism showed me that children in foster care often have connections with extended family members that can be preserved through visitation, even if that visitation can only be done virtually! My time at the Field Center has not only enriched my life through advocacy but has continued to educate me on the challenges of underserved children. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted CASA services, COVID-19 had myriad negative outcomes for older youth in foster care. I am proud of Field Center research describing the impact of COVID-19 on older youth with foster care experience that highlights how much more work there is to be done. I am grateful to be part of a team that focuses on improving the experience of children and families who are affected by the child welfare system.

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