Court Appointed Special Advocates
It’s one thing for a judge to feel confident about his or her decision in a civil or criminal trial. It’s another thing altogether in dependency court, when the future of a child is at stake.
That’s why David Soukup, a superior court judge in Seattle, started the first Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program in 1977. The intent was to train volunteers to be able to step into the courtroom on behalf of the children.
Over the years, CASA programs have spread across the country. There are now 700 such programs nationally, including 38 in California. Each shares the common thread of having trained volunteer advocates—the “CASAs"—spend time with a child involved in Juvenile Court dependency proceedings in order to gather evidence and make recommendations to the court. Along the way, the CASA also provides friendship, mentoring and support, becoming in effect a caring, stable person in that child’s life.
“The goal is for that person to be so knowledgeable about this child and about this case that they can make good recommendations to the judge as to what course of action would be in this child’s best interest,” explained Sheri Morgan, CASA program coordinator.
Northern Valley Catholic Social Services (NVCSS) organized the CASA program in Butte County last year. Volunteers were assigned to their first cases in February.
CASA volunteers make a yearlong commitment to the program, spending two to four hours a month with the child to whom they are assigned. No experience is required, although good communication skills, common sense and compassion for the kids are desired traits.
The legal component of the CASA program is what sets it apart from other mentoring programs and is also what attracts many of its volunteers. The next CASA volunteer training will be held in October, and Morgan is looking for new recruits.
“There are over 650 children in the dependency system in Butte County,” she explained. “That’s not to say that they all need a CASA, or that they’re all having problems with their cases. But that’s the population. A good number of those kids could benefit from a stable, caring adult in their life.”
By national standards, the program should have one full-time supervisor for every 30 volunteers. NVCSS Program Manager Justine Leman explained that CASA currently has 50 volunteers, with Morgan responsible for their recruitment, training and supervision. She also attends court twice weekly and does both the case management and court paperwork.
“In order for us to maintain the integrity of the program, we need to hire another full-time staff person,” Lehman said, explaining the motivation for the group’s upcoming Casablanca fund-raising event.
Casablanca, a formal dinner party featuring casino-style gaming and a live auction, will be held Sat., Sept. 15, from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Albert E. Warrens Reception Center on the Chico State University campus. Lehman promises a romantic evening revolving around the movie Casablanca, complete with piano entertainment.
Auction items include a trip to Hawaii and a Shasta Dinner Train trip. Lehman is still accepting donations of goods for the auction.
Tickets to the event are $50, with corporate and table sponsorships available. A major sponsor is the Chico Rotary.
For a first-year event, Lehman is pleased by the initial response she’s received on Casablanca. She’s believes the event will be well-attended by legal professionals and representatives of nonprofit organizations, and hopes many others come out to support CASA.