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‘A Caseload of One’: CASA Puts the Focus on Individualized Attention for Children

The mission of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Santa Barbara County is to assure a safe, permanent, and nurturing home for all abused and/or neglected children by providing a highly trained volunteer to advocate for them in the court system. When a child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, they are faced with something no youngster should ever have to go through: Navigating a confusing world of court proceedings amid competing interests with their future hanging in the balance.

The children are provided a lawyer, but their attorney likely has hundreds of other cases to handle simultaneously. The child’s social worker is also burdened with a full caseload that prevents much focused attention, and even the judge — whose goal is to issue ruling that is best for the child — sees the child too infrequently and only in a courtroom setting.

That’s where CASA volunteers come in. The advocates — who are paired with just one child at a time, or perhaps a couple of siblings — have one simple goal, which is to make sure the child is getting everything they need to survive and thrive during the transition period after being removed from the home, whether they eventually end up back in their biological parents’ home or elsewhere.

It’s a system that fills a hole in children’s lives right when they are most vulnerable, having had to be removed from the home in order to be protected after all other efforts had failed.

“The volunteer advocates develop the type of trusting relationship that comes from spending time with and getting to know the child. They really become the expert on the case,” explained Kim Colby Davis, CASA’s executive director. “The beauty of CASA is that our volunteers have a caseload of one.”

They work with child welfare and the child’s attorney to collect information and make sure that the court knows everything that might be helpful to determine what’s in the best interest of the child to keep them safe and help them thrive. The child might need anything from tutoring to clothes while they’re in care — “the things we advocate for just runs the gamut.”

The county’s CASA has done a remarkable job in caring for the kids as they endure the tough time that comes after already undergoing abuse or neglect. Indeed, in the decade between 2009-19, the nonprofit tripled in size in both volunteers and children served. But even before the pandemic hit, the need had outgrown CASA’s current capabilities, leaving up to 200 kids without a court-appointed advocate.

“There’s been a real increase in the number of children in need,” Colby Davis said. “We are serving more children than ever, but we still have far too many on a waiting list because there aren’t enough volunteers.”

Not surprisingly, the pandemic provided even more challenges as increases in both domestic violence situations and drug abuse among parents coincided with closures of schools, churches, and other places that would normally report abuse situations before they escalate, Colby Davis said. At the same time, CASA volunteers were hesitating to take on new cases to protect their own health.

“The kids lost their safety net, so the cases that were coming in were really the scary ones, the worst-case scenarios,” she said. “We didn’t stop operations, but given the uptick in cases, we just couldn’t keep up with the pace. We kept working all the way through the pandemic, but we had to slow the pace of training new volunteers. It was like a perfect storm — an increase in the number of children we needed to serve while we had a temporary decrease in the number of volunteers.”

CASA, like everyone, did its best to adapt, pivoting to an online platform for the majority of volunteer training — a protocol that might continue in part even after the pandemic comes to a close.

“It’s actually been such an improvement in our overall training efficieancy that we’re keeping it,” Colby Davis explained. “But we still have to do some in-person training because you just can’t bring a person who you don’t know and never met and place them so deeply into the life of a fragile child. So, we decided to simply do whatever size class we can safely handle through the pandemic, which meant we had to cut down on the numbers, maybe just six as an average.”

More funds and more volunteers are needed as CASA anticipates expanding to training 12 volunteers at a time in June, putting it on the path to pre-pandemic size classes.

The numbers don’t lie: The average CASA volunteer spends about 52 months working with the nonprofit — which translates to more than four years. 

“What that means is that most volunteers stay and take at least a second or third case,” Colby Davis said. “That’s been part of our success on our strategic plan for growth. And it’s not surprising, because it is just so dramatic to see the difference it makes on a case when they’ve got this person who’s deeply invested in this one child’s wellbeing.”

But lest she lose any potential volunteers, Colby Davis wanted to bust a couple of myths about serving as an advocate to make sure nobody unnecessarily disqualifies themselves from participating in the program. First is that just because the number on CASA’s website of children in need of an advocate in Santa Barbara is often at zero, it doesn’t mean that every local kid has an advocate. It’s more that the children are being housed in Lompoc or Santa Maria, which means the advocate has to be willing to make the drive.

“But you can take the 101, put your car on cruise control, and listen to a book on tape while you drive,” Colby Davis said, noting that CASA is expanding its Lompoc office to create a kids hangout room with crafts and games or simply a quiet place to do homework in a really nice environment as well as an upstairs “coffee bar” for the older kids to meet with their advocate.

Another misnomer is the belief that you need to speak Spanish to get assigned as an advocate.

“We always appreciate our bilingual volunteers because there are certainly cases in which that’s helpful, but the majority of our cases are for English-speaking kids and usually even their parents speak English, too,” Colby Davis said. “That’s definitely not a barrier to serving as a volunteer.”

Also inaccurate is the thought that it’s better to wait until retirement to serve as an advocate because of the time commitment. While training does take some focused attention over a six-week span, the average amount of volunteer time is 10-12 hours per month, maybe 15 at the most, Colby Davis said.

“It’s a very doable role for a community member who works full time — so you don’t have to wait until you’re not working. I think half or even more of our volunteers work full time. We’re always willing to give people the information and show how it could work within your schedule.”

Perhaps the biggest fear among potential volunteers is the idea that they aren’t up to the task, the executive director said. 

“It is a very complicated system to work through, but the important thing is that you’re not in it alone,” Colby Davis stressed. “That is what our professional staff is for. They come alongside you, as your assistant in a sense as you work with that child.”

In other words, the desire and willingness to be of service is the most important thing. Which also holds true even if a commitment to volunteering isn’t in the cards, especially through CASA’s Sponsor a Child program that asks for a donation commensurate with CASA’s cost of a single case — including keeping donors connected with the progress of an individual case as it works its way through the system.

“We’re up to about 75 people who aren’t quite ready to volunteer, but they’re thrilled to be sponsoring a child,” Colby Davis said, who added the program provides frequent updates and regular conversations with staff “where they can actually learn how their donation works in real time and hear about everything that’s going on with the child.

The myriad ways to support CASA include helping to arrange corporate support, donating gift cards to retail outlets that can help provide birthday gifts for the kids, or simply spreading the word about CASA at your place of business, church, club, or organization as well as on social media. Whatever the method, it seems it could hardly be more rewarding than to be a part of a program that serves abused or neglected kids whose ages range from newborn to 21.

“They’re just kids and they haven’t done anything wrong,” Colby Davis emphasized. “The babies who come from addicted mothers are so innocent, and even most of the older kids are just so normal. They just want to be a normal kid. We try to help that happen.”

What could be more important than that?