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Yes. Locally, Judge Edward Guido was instrumental in establishing the Cumberland County CASA Program in 2000. CASA has been endorsed by the American Bar Association, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Dept. of Justice. The other Judges and Hearing Officer who hear dependency cases in Cumberland County also embrace and support the CASA concept.
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A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer is a trained citizen (21 years or older) who is appointed by a judge to represent the best interests of a child in court. Children helped by CASA volunteers include those in foster care for whom permanency is being addressed. Most of the children are victims of abuse and/or neglect.
CASA volunteers undergo a thorough training course conducted by the local CASA Program. Training requirements vary from program to program, but Cumberland County CASA offers 40+ hours of training. Volunteers learn about courtroom procedure from the principals in the system—from judges, lawyers, social workers, court personnel, and others. CASA volunteers also learn effective advocacy techniques for children, and are educated about specific topics ranging from child sexual abuse to early childhood development and adolescent behavior. Volunteer trainees also observe dependency court proceedings. In addition to the initial training volunteers receive, they are also expected to complete 12 hours of in-service training annually.
As a child advocate, the CASA volunteer has four main responsibilities:
In order to prepare a recommendation, the CASA volunteer talks with the child, parents, family members, social workers, school officials, health providers and others who are knowledgeable about the child’s history. The CASA volunteer also reviews all records pertaining to the child—school, medical and caseworker reports, etc.
Caseworkers are employed by the County. They may be responsible for multiple cases at one time and are frequently unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation of each. The CASA volunteer is assigned to only one child or sibling group at a time. The CASA volunteer does not replace a caseworker on a case; he or she is an independent appointee of the court. The CASA volunteer can examine a child’s case thoroughly, has knowledge of community resources, and can make recommendations to the Court, independent of state agency restrictions.
The CASA volunteer does not provide legal representation in the courtroom. That is the role of the attorney or Guardian ad litem. However, the CASA volunteer does provide crucial background information that assists attorneys in presenting their cases. It is important to remember that CASA volunteers do not represent a child’s wishes in court. Rather, they speak to the child’s best interests.
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life, with a variety of professional, educational and ethnic backgrounds. Nationwide approximately half of the volunteers are also employed in regular full-time jobs and approximately 80% are female.
CASA volunteers offer children continuity and advocacy during complex legal proceedings. They explain to the child the events that are happening, the reasons they are in court, and the roles the judges, lawyers, and social workers play. CASA volunteers also encourage the child to express his or her own opinion and hopes, while remaining objective observers.
Findings have shown that children who have been assigned a CASA volunteer tend to spend less time in court and in the foster care system than those who do not have CASA representation. Judges have observed that children with CASA volunteers also have greater chances of finding permanent homes than children who do not have a CASA.
Each case is different. A CASA volunteer usually spends more time conducting research and interviews prior to the first court appearance. Once the initial court report is complete, volunteers spend approximately 10-15 hours a month maintaining contacts and gathering information. CASA volunteers meet with the child(ren) they are assigned to at least monthly.
The CASA volunteer remains committed to the case until it is permanently resolved, i.e., when the child is deemed to be safe and dependency is terminated. This may take from 18 to 24 months. One of the primary benefits of the CASA Program is that, unlike others involved, who often rotate cases, the CASA volunteer is a consistent figure in the proceedings and provides continuity for the child.
Children from birth to 21 years of age who are victims of abuse and/or neglect and who have become wards of the Court may be assigned a CASA volunteer.