A few days after my 15th birthday I began volunteering as a candy striper several hours a week at a small community hospital. Over the years, I have continued to volunteer and support many non-profit organizations. Recently, I did an internet search in my area that needed volunteers to work with children, and immediately information about Missouri’s 11th Circuit Court CASA program was returned. CASA is an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocate.
CASA volunteers receive special training outlined by the programs CASA Coordinator. The training and curriculum vary state to state based on the logistics of the area where the CASA volunteer is located. However, the goal of the Missouri CASA program is to help the volunteer become an advocate for their CASA child or children. A CASA volunteer is educated in all aspects of the legal system that serve children who are neglected or abused.
To qualify to be a CASA volunteer one must be 21 years old, have a valid driver’s license, submit to a criminal background check, complete the training course and be able to spend a minimum of 4 hours a month with the child. There cannot be a conviction on record for any child, adult, elderly, domestic abuse, or felony convictions. The background check is coordinated the State of Missouri and the coordinating law enforcement agency where the volunteer resides.
A CASA volunteer meets weekly with the child, or children that the family court judge has appointed them. CASA volunteers may only work on one case at a time. However, there may be more than one child when siblings are involved. The volunteer sees all children consistently on a weekly schedule. After picking the child or children up from the foster home, the child’s school or daycare the CASA volunteer will provide a safe place and fun activity before taking the child to their foster home.
This may include, but is not limited to going for a walk, playing at a park or visiting over an ice cream cone. Besides visiting their child weekly, the volunteer is responsible for communicating with both the foster and biological families to learn what has happened and what is happening with the child. The volunteer is strongly encouraged to consider all aspects of the child life, and reaching out to anyone who plays a part in the child’s daily life. By looking at the child’s entire world internally and externally, including home, school, work, and recreational activities, the volunteer can identify the child’s strengths and deficits. This allows the CASA volunteer to completely understand who the child is and where the child is struggling.
The CASA volunteer is responsible for interviewing, information gathering, identifying areas needing services, communicating, and facilitating services for the child. There are quarterly treatment team meetings attended by the child (if the child is old enough to understand and participate), foster and biological families, the children’s division, the juvenile officer, the CASA volunteer and the CASA coordinator. It is the treatment team that determines if the main goal of reunification of the child with his or her biological family is realistic and in the best interest of the child.
The goal of the Family Court is always reunification of the child and his or her family. However, there are times when terminating parental rights (TPR) is necessary. Termination is never the first, second, or third choice. The absolute goal for every child placed in protective custody by the children’s division is a safe, permanent home. If the decision to terminate parental rights arises, that means the treatment team has exhausted every other possibility, and in the end it is ultimately the Family Court Judge’s decision.
From the beginning when a judge writes a court order to appoint a CASA volunteer to the case it is because the judge wants to insure that there is a neutral unbiased person who is looking out for what is in the best interest of the child. The CASA volunteer does not working for the court, the foster family, the biological parents, the judge, or anyone else associated with the case. The only question a CASA volunteer must be able to ask and answer with complete integrity is “what is in the best interest of the child?” If he or she does not agree with the recommendations of the treatment team then he or she must clearly convey that message to everyone involved in the case, and ultimately to the judge.
Before each court date, the CASA volunteer submits a comprehensive report to the court, which includes a summary of what has happened in the past three months. The report to the court includes the recommendation of CASA volunteer as to what he or she feels “is in the BEST interest of the child or children.” The CASA volunteer is a sworn officer of the court. He or she is a neutral party, working for no one, but is always looking out for the child’s best interest. The family court judge appoints a CASA volunteer when a child is in the protective and physical custody of the children’s division due to neglect or child abuse.