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Court Appointed Special Advocates: A Voice for Kids in CourtIn Philadelphia, there are more than 5,800 children in foster care and another 8,500 children receiving in-home services. About 4,000 of these children are represented by private attorneys.
2007-11-09 12:00:00 AM
In Philadelphia, there are more than 5,800 children in foster care and another 8,500 children receiving in-home services. About 4,000 of these children are represented by private attorneys. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources for these attorneys, thorough investigations of each child's needs ¿ including attendance at planning meetings and the opportunity to meet the child prior to a court hearing ¿ often do not occur.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers are community volunteers appointed by a juvenile court judge to work on behalf of children in dependency court. CASA serves to provide a link between the court, the social workers, the attorneys and the child. These volunteer advocates conduct an intensive and an extensive review of each case. Their reports to the court provide the judge with a comprehensive account of each child's needs concerning his or her particular situation.
Mindy is 11. After living in foster care for one week, she disclosed that her father had repeatedly abused her sexually. Her family's case has been active since 1997 and in three different counties. The court appointed a CASA volunteer to be the eyes and ears for Mindy in hopes of finding her a stable and safe environment.
Characterized as "friends of the court," CASA carefully recruits volunteers from the community. The majority of these volunteers are professionals, working full- or part-time jobs and looking to make a difference in children's lives. Prior to the assignment of cases, CASA volunteers must complete a comprehensive 30-hour training course. Additionally, each volunteer works directly under the supervision of the CASA case supervisors and the executive director.
Amy, 9 and Andy, 12 have a long history in the foster-care system. Both have serious special medical needs. Amy has cerebral palsy and Andy has a seizure disorder. After the initiation of court proceedings, the judge appointed a CASA volunteer to ensure that Amy and Andy's medical needs, as well as their needs for stability and security, were met.
Similar to the dependency court attorneys and the social workers, CASA volunteers play a critical part in helping a child move toward a more permanent and stable life. They do not, in any way, replace the dedication and hard work that the professionals provide these children. However, while an attorney legally represents the best interests of the child, the CASA volunteer personally advocates for the child's needs and wishes.
Moreover, the CASA volunteer handles a maximum of two cases. This permits an in-depth review and follow-up concerning each aspect of the case. The frequent contact between the CASA volunteer and the child additionally assists the volunteer's determination of whether education, counseling, improved parenting or other services will further the child's chances of securing a happier and safer home. Most importantly, the CASA volunteer gives the child, for all sense and purposes, a voice in court.
Amelia, 6, Charlie 4, Stanley, 3, and Ben, 9 months old, were abandoned by their parents. Products of an environment littered with alcohol, drugs and domestic violence, Amelia was the primary caretaker of her younger siblings. The judge appointed a CASA volunteer to monitor and advocate for the children's best interests. All four children are still waiting for their CASA volunteer.
Preliminary findings at the national level indicate that children appointed a CASA volunteer tend to spend less time languishing in the foster care system and receive more services than those who do not have CASA representation. Judges have also observed that children with a CASA volunteer have increased chances of finding permanent homes.
While there are more than 950 CASA programs nationwide, Philadelphia's CASA program is still relatively new. However, the program has received a strong showing of support from many of the local Family Court judges and other child welfare professionals. As we continue to grow, it is our hope that we will be serving the best interests of not only the child, but of the community as well. Please consider helping us in our pursuit to help these children find stability and safety in, not only their homes, but also in their lives.
For more information on how you can become involved, contact Jennifer Kelley, CASA supervisor or Wendy Aguirre, CASA executive director, at 215-922-1409, or visit CASA's Web site at www.casaphiladelphia.org.
JENNIFER KELLEY brings six years of legal practice from both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She served as a law clerk to Judge Angelo J. DiCamillo of the Camden County Superior Court-Family Division, worked as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia County and had her own law practice specializing in custody and adoptions. In addition to her CASA responsibilities, Kelleycontinues to represent clients on a pro bono basis.