The Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska legislature plays an important and specific role in the child welfare discussion. The Judiciary Committee is responsible for processing legislation involving, among other things, the courts, judicial procedures and juveniles. Under this general umbrella come the important discussions and decisions regarding abused and neglected children and their experience with and protection by the court. The committee considers and proposes legislation to help ensure that the judicial system is as responsive as possible for children who interact with or are directly affected by the courts.
The Judiciary Committee sees the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program as an important partner in the judicial process for abused and neglected children. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to speak in court to ensure the safety and well-being of children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Judges sometimes refer to CASA volunteers as their “eyes and ears,” as the CASA job is to get to know each child and all the persons and systems that are part of that child’s life and to make reports and recommendations based on their interviews, research and observations. CASA volunteers are assigned to only one or two cases at a time, so they are able to give each case focused attention. CASA volunteers stay with a case from the time they are appointed until the case is closed and are often the only constant adult presence in an abused child’s life.
We know that the CASA model works. National studies reveal the following regarding CASA involvement:
- Children with a CASA volunteer are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care1
- Children with a CASA volunteer are half as likely to re-enter foster care2,3,4
- “…children without CASA involvement spend an average of over eight months longer in care, compared to children having CASA involvement.”5
- CASA volunteers improve representation of children6
- CASA volunteers reduce the time needed by lawyers7
Nebraska’s first CASA program opened in 1986 in Sarpy County. There are now CASA programs in 37 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Counties with a CASA program include Adams, Cass, Cheyenne, Clay, Colfax, Dawson, Deuel, Dodge, Douglas, Fillmore, Furnas, Garden, Gosper, Hall, Hamilton, Harlan, Hitchcock, Howard, Jefferson, Kearney, Keith, Lancaster, Lincoln, Madison, Merrick, Nuckolls, Otoe, Perkins, Phelps, Platte, Red Willow, Sarpy, Saunders, Scotts Bluff, Seward, Webster and York.
While the primary mission of CASA is to provide a voice for children in the courtroom, CASA has proven itself to be a valuable voice beyond the courtroom as well. Because CASA volunteers meet regularly with abused and neglected children, they hear firsthand what children need and see face-to-face the effects of child welfare reform on abused and neglected children. CASA volunteers have a unique vantage point for addressing the flaws in the child welfare system: they see the system through the eyes of the children directly affected by systems designed to protect them.
As part of comprehensive legislation passed last year by the Nebraska Legislature, the Judiciary Committee sponsored legislation that established the CASA Fund, providing two years of state funding designed to help CASA programs in Nebraska to continue to recruit and train CASA volunteers, to develop new CASA programs or expand current CASA programs into areas not currently served and to create new and innovative programming for CASA.
Twenty of Nebraska’s 22 local CASA programs applied for and have received grant funds during this first year of state funding. Those grant funds are being used to recruit volunteers, provide initial training (as required by state statute) for new volunteers, provide continuing education for active CASA volunteers (also required by state statute), to start new programs (in Cheyenne and Lincoln counties) and to support programs that are expanding into adjacent counties (CASA of South Central Nebraska expanding into Webster county and Seward County CASA expanding into Jefferson county).
The Nebraska CASA Association reports on behalf of network of local CASA programs twice each year. Reports are reviewed by the Legislature, the Supreme Court and the governor, and they include statistics regarding the number of CASA volunteers trained, the cost of training CASA volunteers, the number of CASA volunteers recruited, a descrip- tion of new programs started or current programs that expanded into adjacent counties, the number of courts being served by CASA programs and the total number of children being served by CASA volunteers.
Local CASA programs estimate that they will be able to serve almost 300 additional children as a result of the first year of state funding. That’s 300 additional children who will have a voice in court and an extra set of discerning eyes making sure that their case is not lost in the midst of Nebraska’s child welfare reform.
While this is good, it is not enough. At its heart, this is not merely an issue of abuse, or neglect, or a broken system, or overburdened workers; this is an issue of the unalienable rights of a child. This is a human rights issue. It is about ensuring that every child has the right to learn and grow and be treated with dignity and respect. The safety and well-being of children are hanging in the balance. CASA volunteers are a formidable force providing a strong and consistent voice for the rights of children. All abused and neglected children deserve that voice.
5. Calkins, Cynthia A., M.S., and Murray Millar, Ph.D. “The Effectiveness of Court Appointed Special Advocates to Assist in Permanency Planning,” “Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal,” vol. 16, no. 1, February 1999.
6. Younclarke, Davin, Kathleen Dyer Ramos and Lorraine Granger-Merkle. “A Systematic Review of the Impact of Court Appointed Special Advocates,” Journal of the Center for Family, Children and the Courts, 2004.