By Brian Craig, Paralegal Program Chair, Minnesota School of Business Online
By volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), students and graduates of the paralegal and criminal justice programs at Minnesota School of Business can gain real world experience in the legal and social service field while helping provide an important community service for abused and neglected children.
Through the CASA program, which currently operates in every state in some form, volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. The CASA programs are known by different names, including Guardian ad Litem (GAL), Child Advocates, and Voices for Children. CASA volunteers typically handle just a few cases at a time so they can provide in-depth, firsthand information to judges. CASA volunteers focus on the well-being of the children without needing to serve the interests of the parents, the county child protective services unit, or the state. For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.
Ideally, volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. CASA volunteers often gather information, appear and testify in court, explain what is going on to the child, recommend services, monitor case plans and court orders, and keep the court informed. Generally more time is spent in the beginning of the case gathering facts, conducting interviews and collecting documents. On average, CASA volunteers dedicate approximately 10 hours a month on a case. The average case lasts about a year and a half and most CASA/GAL programs require that a volunteer commit to serve for at least one year.
Christine Larsen, a graduate of the AAS paralegal program at Broadview University in March 2013, was sworn in as a CASA volunteer this past March. Christine applauded the program when she said “It is a great program and they can always use more volunteers.” A need for more volunteers definitely exists.
The concept of the CASA volunteer originated with Seattle, Washington, Superior Court Judge David W. Soukup. Judge Soukup grew frustrated with the lack of available information about the children whose futures he was determining. The basic components of Judge Soukup’s 1977 pilot program are essentially the same today: a judge appoints carefully selected, well-trained lay volunteers to represent the best interests of children in court. The need for CASA advocacy increased after Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which mandated a greater emphasis on permanent placement. Congress also expanded CASA programs with the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990, which states that a “court-appointed special advocate shall be available to every victim of child abuse or neglect in the United States that needs such an advocate.” See Davin Youngclarke, M.A. et. al., A Systematic Review of the Impact of Court Appointed Special Advocates, 5 J. Center for Families, Child. & Cts. 109, 110-11 (2004).
Judges have endorsed the CASA program and the efforts of CASA volunteers. Yavapai (Az.) County Superior Judge Robert Brutinel said, “When I think about CASAs, what I think about in addition to all the hard work, in addition to learning about the system, in addition to holding judges and the system accountable for how the system works—is consistency. Since I’ve been a juvenile court judge for almost 15 years now, everybody’s changed. Nobody that I started with is still in the juvenile system. We see new case managers all the time. Treatment professionals change. The one constant I see in children’s lives is the CASA.”
Students who are looking for an internship may consider working as a CASA volunteer combined with other work to meet the 180-hour requirement for the internship. Students can count the time spent in training and volunteering in the CASA program during the quarter when they take the internship course toward the 180-hour internship.
CASA volunteers provide a valuable role in representing the interests of children. Meanwhile, students learn more about the legal system and gain more contacts in the legal field. Representing the interests of children as a CASA volunteer could also help lead to employment in the legal field, particularly with law firms that represent clients in the practice areas of family law and juvenile justice. The CASA volunteer program is an excellent example of applied learning where students learn while also providing a valuable community service.
For more information about being a CASA volunteer, visit their website.