When Child Protective Services intervenes in a family's life often a child is taken away from his parents and siblings. Placed in foster care, under the wing of a system that is trying to protect him, life can seem a dark and hopeless. The volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate -- or CASA -- can be that child's ray of hope.
"A CASA is a special person that the judge appointed for you... because the judge wants to know what's best for you," reads the Arizona CASA program's coloring book.
"Your CASA volunteer understands that you might be afraid or sad because so many changes are going on in your life," reads a page with a cartoon of a sad-faced girl looking out of a window.
Other pages describe a CASA as a "friend" who the child can cry and laugh with; a person who thinks the child is terrific."
A sudden and overwhelming number of new faces have entered the child's life along with CPS, according to Cecille Masters-Webb. They include lawyers, case workers, therapists, foster parents, visitation supervisors and teachers.
"Children have done nothing wrong and here they are in the system so they start acting out," said a local CASA we'll call Katie because of cases on which she is currently working.
Katie has been a CASA for nearly a decade.
She became a CASA at the behest of her daughter, a reporter with the Birmingham, Ala. news. Her daughter and another reporter investigated for three years why there were so many children dying in Alabama from abuse.
Katie said she finally told her daughter, please don't tell me about another dead child because I can't do anything about it. Her daughter said, "Oh yes you can! The only children I see that are really safe are the ones who have CASAs."
Katie, who has mentored five teens and three young children, describes the commitment a CASA makes to children as, "...a commitment where you see results, where you feel like you have actually done something, where your time is spent to help these children. If you don't do it, nobody else is going to... It is extremely worthwhile."
CASAs visit the child or children to which they are assigned at least once a month, but as much as once a week depending on individual necessity, circumstance and how much involvement an older child really wants.
When Jerome was 12 his mother told CPS that she couldn't take care of him and his infant sister. He watched as his little sister was adopted into another family. His CASA helped him get through the experience taking pictures and laughing and crying with him.
"I was dead inside and she was my respirator keeping me alive," is how Jerome Gill described his CASA in the book, "Someone There For Me -- Everyday Heroes Through the Eyes of Teens in Foster Care."
CASAs are fact finders. They ask questions of everyone involved in the life of the child they are assigned to. They are trained to engage in these one-sided conversations without giving away information.
"We are under a very strict blanket of confidentiality," Katie said "We don't talk, we listen."
CASAs admit that the most difficult case is the one they are working on right now.
Masters-Webb said she believes the most demanding time comes at the beginning of a case when CASAs are, "Meeting people and networking to establish their presence. They need to do that face to face.
"Later on, if they want to know how things are going at school, they have some options -- they can call because they have already established their relationship with the school ... so there is less time in maintaining the case than there is usually up front."
CASAs tell her the next big consumer of their time is the preparation of the confidential formal report to the court they are required to make.
"All you are doing is reporting what you found out," Katie said. "Not what you suspect as much as it has to be factual. I think that is what is so frightening to people who read what we do, and say oh I can't do that. Well, you can. It's not that difficult."
"What do you want the judge to know about the children?" is one of the basic questions a CASA must answer.
Are they in school, how much time do the children say they want to spend with their birth parents, how do they like those visits, what areas are they progressing in and so on.
The CASA must sign off on the final report before it goes to the judge.
"They have to make sure that they can stand for everything in the report because it coming from information people have given them," Masters-Webb said.
"Most of the time there are documents associated with the information." For instance if the parent says, "The school made my child do this or the DPS worker said my child couldn't do this," the CASA can go directly to that source, look at the report card or documents related to a particular conversation.
The files get thick, often filling several 4-inch ring binders.
"We aren't just repeating what somebody said. We are addressing it," Masters-Webb said.
"The judges listen to us and our reports," Katie said. "They know that the reports are accurate and they can rely on them.
"You don't know what's going to happen to these children and you do your best," Katie said. "You kind of make up your own mind what is best for the kids, but that isn't always what happens ... you have high expectations and you want the best for these children ... It is a learning experience. I'm not a professional in anything to do with children except raising them (she has five) so I have learned a great deal."
The CASA program requires a commitment for the duration of the case Masters-Webb said. A year to about 18 months.
The initial training process takes about 30 hours with 12 hours of inservice training required each year. CASAs meet monthly in Payson and have access to books, online training, special speakers and the support of one another.
Volunteer CASAs come from all walks of life to help children in dire need.
A recent Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care report states that, "CASA is a proven means of strengthening the voice of children in dependency courts."
In the words of 16-year-old Najiba, "A single visit from my CASA worker means the world to me. Having her there just to talk to keeps me from crashing into that low point in my life."
To find out more about the Arizona Court Appointed Special Advocate Program contact (928) 474-7145 or firstname.lastname@example.org.