April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Nebraskans have become increasingly aware of child abuse and neglect as the state has attempted to transfer case management of foster children to private providers. This legislative session has been referred to by many as the session of the child as bills, hearings, reports and discussions have attempted to address the welfare of children who are victims of abuse and neglect.
Nebraska’s Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program has gained attention throughout the debates. The CASA program was first developed in 1977 to provide advocacy services for children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to ensure children in the foster care system don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. CASA volunteers stay with each case until permanency is achieved, oftentimes taking on the role of the single constant adult presence in their assigned child’s life.
Nebraska has 22 local CASA programs serving 35 of the state’s 93 counties. Approximately 400 CASA volunteers served almost 1,200 children in 2010, the most recent year for which audited statistics are available. While there is national literature that addresses the efficacy of CASA services for abused and neglected children, it is limited. In order to ensure that they are providing the highest quality and ethical services for this state’s foster children, Nebraska’s CASA programs requested to partner with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) Grace Abbott School of Social Work. The partnership is broad in scope and effect. It includes a literature review, program evaluation, analysis of retrospective data, needs assessment and development and implementation of a case review form designed to measure the impact of CASA services on Nebraska’s abused and neglected children. All elements of the partnership are ongoing, with the exception of the literature review, which is complete.
Impact of CASA
Master’s of social work student Deidre Isaac reviewed national research regarding CASA. She found that although current research is sparse, it highlights the impact of CASA involvement on service provision, the court system and permanency planning for youth.
Impact of CASA Involvement on Service Provision
- CASA volunteers are found to be at least as effective as attorneys in advocating for children in juvenile court; in fact, children served by CASA volunteers receive a significantly greater number of services and are more likely to be adopted as opposed to languishing in the foster care system.
- A CASA volunteer is expected to remain with his or her appointed youth until the case is closed; however, other advocates are not held to that same standard.
- CASA volunteers have an average of almost 97 total contacts per case, including conversations with their assigned youth, biological and foster parents, guardians, caseworkers and other individuals associated with the case.
Impact of CASA Involvement on the Court System
- A 2003 survey of judges, guardians ad litem (GALs) and CASA volunteers assessed whether CASA involvement improved the amount and quality of information provided to the court system. Results indicated that judges received a report prior to hearings 100 percent of the time when a CASA volunteer was assigned. Interestingly, GALs submitted reports before a hearing 13 percent more often if there was a CASA volunteer involved than if there was not a CASA volunteer.
- Researchers asked judges to rate the helpfulness of CASA volunteers, child-protection workers and GALs using a five-point scale. CASA volunteers were scored as most helpful.
- When GALs were asked about CASA involvement, they noted numerous positive qualities, including that CASA volunteers had more contact with, gave more attention to and provided more stability for the children than others in the system.
Impact of CASA Involvement on Achieving Permanency for Children
- Statistically significant findings determine that CASA cases have on average 1.26 to 2.70 fewer placements than cases without CASA involvement.
- Closed CASA cases have fewer continuances than cases without CASA involvement. The majority of the literature supports the idea that CASA participation reduces the length of time youth spend in out-of-home care, as well as the number of placement changes.
- Most research agrees that CASA involvement leads to higher rates of adoption and reunification.
- Youth without CASA involvement spend roughly eight more months in care and reach permanency 11 percent less often than youth with CASA involvement.
- Additionally, 29 percent of CASA cases achieve reunification, while 20 percent of cases without a CASA volunteer achieved the same level of permanency.
- A higher percentage of children involved with CASA are placed with either parents, relatives or in adoptive homes (62 percent) than those without CASA involvement (33 percent). Children with an advocate have two times more plans for reunification and are four times less likely to have plans involving long-term foster care than those without.
Overall Benefits of a CASA Volunteer
The majority of research agrees that CASA volunteers are at least as effective as other representatives, if not more effective in certain areas. CASA involvement is found to increase the number of services provided to and contact made with children in foster care. Judges are more likely to receive a court report prior to hearings, and positive changes during the court process are also attributed to the work of CASA volunteers. Data supports the idea that CASA participation reduces the number of placement changes and increases the likeliness that children will achieve permanency in a timely fashion.
Impact of the UNO/CASA Partnership
With the spotlight shining on Nebraska’s abused and neglected children, it is important to determine what services are effective and which will help restore children to safety and permanency in an efficient and ethical manner. The program evaluation provided by UNO will help Nebraska’s CASA programs to focus their efforts on the services that will make the most difference for the children they serve. CASA was born out of one judge’s desire to minimize, as much as possible, the traumatic effects of abuse and neglect on children and youth. With thorough evaluation and research, Nebraskans will know if CASA is achieving its mission.
Research for this essay was provided by master’s of social work students Deidre Isaacs and Amy West. West is a CASA volunteer with the CASA For Douglas County program.
For information about CASA, becoming a CASA volunteer or supporting a CASA program in your area, contact the Nebraska CASA Association at www.nebraskacasa.org.