ALBANY – The executive director of a program that provides volunteer advocates for more than 1,500 foster children in New York City said the proposed elimination of court system funding would cause her organization to “close our doors.”

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in New York City would lose $338,000 in state funding and CASAs in 30 counties outside the five boroughs would see cuts of $462,000 beginning April 1 if additional funding is not found.

The $800,000 in CASA funding was not included in the state courts’ 2013-14 budget, as it had been in previous Judiciary budgets.

Former chief judge Judith Kaye, a staunch advocate of the program, said she found word of the discontinued funding “very distressing.”

“The prospect is just devastating,” said Kaye, who is now of counsel to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “It’s a tremendously useful tool for children and families.”

Ronald Younkins, executive director of the Unified Court System, said the CASA appropriation was a casualty in a proposed $2 billion budget in which administrators had to find $50 million to cover mandated cost increases in such areas as pay hikes for judges and unionized court workers, and employee benefits (NYLJ, Dec. 3, 2012).

Younkins called CASA a “very valuable program that serves an important function in states around the country.” He said Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) and other court officials would meet with CASA coordinators next month to see if restorations are possible.

“We are looking for ways to restore some part of that funding,” Younkins said yesterday. “The matter is not yet closed [or] finally decided.”

Younkins said CASA may be somewhat less vital in other states because New York has a “robust” attorney-for-the-child program. The budget includes $124 million for lawyers assigned to look out for the interests of minors involved in foster care cases and other Family Court matters.

CASA administrators said the impending loss of state funding comes on top of about five years of flat or diminishing revenues for virtually all CASA programs due to cuts in the Interest on Lawyer Account fund and sluggish private contributions, both because of the poor economy.

Peggy Grauwiler, executive director of the New York City CASA, said she was “living in fear” of a possible funding cut,”but when it came, it still seems shocking.”

She said the loss of state funding would cause her group, which coordinates the work of about 120 volunteers and has a budget of $1 million a year, to cease operations.

Arthur Siegel, president of CASA: Advocates for Children of New York State, predicted that the futures of many of the other 20 CASA programs in the state would be imperiled by the lost appropriation. The programs outside New York City, some of which cover more than one county, serve about 1,600 children.

“We are one of these well-kept secrets,” said Siegel, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Albany. “We don’t get a lot of press. We don’t get a lot of attention. But I really believe a lot of these programs are going to close.”

In New York, a task force chaired by Howard Levine, the retired Court of Appeals judge, urged creation of CASAs in 2004, and guidelines governing their activities were written into the Rules of the Chief Judge (Part 44) and Rules of Chief Administrative Judge (Part 117) in the 2005-06 fiscal year.

The rules largely track standards for the training and activities of volunteers established by the Seattle-based national CASA Association.

Goal of Permanency

Levine, a Family Court judge in Schenectady County from 1971 to 1980, said he was surprised that CASA funding was eliminated in the Judiciary’s budget, “mainly because it is a drop in the budget in a billion-dollar budget.”

“It would be very sad and frankly it would be counterproductive” if the program dies because of the lost appropriation, Levine said yesterday.

“The main thing is they are successful in helping establish permanency for these kids,” said Levine, who is now senior counsel at Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna in Albany. “If you get these kids decent help with CASA volunteers you are saving the state tens of thousands of dollars. I think that is where the program has special appeal.”

Though specific rules for the CASA programs in New York vary somewhat, all volunteers must undergo at least 30 hours of training and clear security checks before becoming eligible for assignment to cases by Family Court judges.

To provide both courts and foster children with continuity of services, volunteers are typically required to commit to tracking individual cases for one or two years. In some instances, volunteers are asked to follow children through the foster care process until they are placed in permanent homes, a process that can take several years, said Barbara Benedict, state CASA coordinator.

Benedict said that in 2011, 769 volunteers spent an average of 81.5 hours tracking the cases of 3,074 foster children statewide. Grauwiler said the volunteers in New York City provide an average of 720 hours of service a year.

“We tend to get assigned the most difficult cases,” said Benedict. “We are concerned about the health, both the mental health and physical health of children, and their education. We want to know their wants and needs. We interview families, foster families, the children themselves, school, teachers, counselors and we gather all this information and we report back to the Family Court judge… Our mission is safe, permanent homes for children as quickly as possible.”

A fair percentage of the volunteers are retired, often one-time teachers and lawyers. Benedict, who became state coordinator when funding for the group’s executive director was lost due to earlier cuts, said law students interested in becoming more versed on the Family Courts are also well-represented in the CASA ranks.

Siegel, the CASA president, said CASA programs are “hugely cost effective” because they help place children in permanent homes and divert youngsters from more expensive temporary foster care arrangements.

“It is penny wise and pound foolish to be cutting these programs that provide a real safety net for these children,” he said.

Siegel added that the funding cut would cripple the advocacy system in New York City and elsewhere by depriving programs of money to train and oversee the system of volunteers at CASA’s core.

“When you take money away from the local programs, you are taking money away from training these volunteers who are in the Family Court every day, who are assigned by the judges to look after the really high-risk children,” he said.

National CASA funding from Congress, some of which trickled down to New York, also has suffered a 69 percent reduction in recent years to further reduce aid available to the program, according to Siegel.

He said he hopes to convince court administrators, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office or the state Legislature to restore the funding.

The concept of CASAs was pioneered by David Soukup, a superior court judge in Seattle who developed the idea of having people track the school records, health care needs and other aspects of the lives of children involved in Family Court matters.

Soukup reasoned that by becoming knowledgeable about the lives and problems of the children, the advocates would be able to provide judges, attorneys for the child and social services caseworkers more information about cases than they currently had available to them.