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For the Kids

State District Judge Bill Mazur brought 50 volunteers into the CASA yesterday.
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The largest class of volunteers for Dallas CASA -- almost 50 -- was sworn in as officers of the court yesterday by state District Judge Bill Mazur of the 304th Juvenile District Court. In a state system of child protective services that is staggering under the weight of its caseload, that’s a good sign.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. Unpaid volunteers go through 30 hours of training in order to be assigned to cases of abused and neglected children who have been removed from their parents. “CASA volunteers are there for one reason -- to advocate for the best interest of the child,” says Dallas CASA executive director Beverly Levy.

It would seem that in a system where troubled families receive attention from CPS caseworkers, guardians ad litem (attorneys for children) and judges, there would be no need for yet another layer of protection. But CASAs have a completely different role: Once assigned to a case by a judge, each CASA attends court hearings with the child or children. They spend time getting to know the child, perhaps even talking to teachers, attending school events, getting medical care or going to Six Flags with them. They locate and talk to various family members to determine who might be best for temporary or permanent placement. And they work with CPS, ad litems and the judge to make decisions about the child’s future.

Supervisor Ruth Holland started as a CASA volunteer. “As a volunteer, I had a case of two girls, half sisters, whose mother was heavily into drugs,” Holland says. “They were about 3 and 5 years old. The father wasn’t the [biological] father, but because he had a relationship with them, he was the only dad they had ever known. The mom continued to use drugs throughout the case. Despite saying the right things, she never did the right thing. You go see the father’s house, talk to whoever is involved with the kids, whether at school, home, or their extended family.”

Glenda Taylor, also a CASA supervisor, says that once a child is taken into CPS care, there’s a series of hearings; the first is 14 days after their removal from the home.

"Typically that’s the first time we get to meet the family,” says Taylor. “After that, the judge will give you another date, usually 60 days, for a status hearing. We’re making phone calls, setting up visits, observing visitation to see the parents’ interaction, and talking to the kids, depending on their age. We try to see the kids at least once a month.”

Taylor adds that sometimes the CASA helps children get medical care, immunizations, glasses, an operation. They tend to be received differently than caseworkers and lawyers. “The parents may be angry. Sometimes when CASA shows up, they are relieved to see us, because we are not appointed by CPS. We are appointed by the judge.”

Holland says that there’s such a high turnover at CPS the CASA volunteer may be the only constant in the child’s life.

“CPS caseworkers have so many cases,” says Holland. “I just have one case. I can make the extra calls, go meet the father and meet his employer. Our desire is to get some kind of permanency for the kids.”

The families typically have many problems, and CASA volunteers tend to be older, more mature than many CPS caseworkers. In many cases they’ve already raised a family.

“We get to do the fun stuff too,” says Holland. “We go to Six Flags, have lunch with them at school. We went to a high school graduation of one girl. A volunteer had been with her five years. We were the only ones there for her.”

The CASA might still be involved with the child when they “age out” of the system; after reaching 18 years old they must leave foster care. Then the CASA role can be helping the teen apply to college, set up a bank account, apply for a job, get an apartment.

The system of advocacy can make a big difference in lives that are already traumatized, says Levy. Dallas CASA has been reaching out to find more volunteers; but only 20 percent of cases now are assigned CASAs. Levy says Dallas CASA is trying to be more proactive about recruiting. “The caseworker, judge, guardian ad litem may change,” says Levy. “But the CASA doesn’t change.” --Glenna Whitley

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