Haleigh Banks is the eldest of six siblings, and found herself being responsible for the other children as they rotated between foster homes and returning to their mother. Her mother suffered with alcohol and other problems. From the age of 12, Hayleigh, herself had been placed in eight different foster homes and was going through the Boulder County family court system. And then she was assigned a CASA, and her life slowly started a return to stability.
And what is a CASA? It stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, and a CASA works on behalf of a child involved in the legal system.
The national organization was set up in 1982 and the Boulder County program (Voices for Children) was founded shortly after in 1985.
CASA volunteers advocate on behalf of children who are before the court because they have experienced abuse or neglect. Most of the children served are in foster care.
The CASA writes a report to the judge before each court appearance, summarizing what’s going on in the case, interviewing all parties (teachers, therapists, doctors, social workers, biological parents – if possible – or parenting coaches) to see how the child is doing. At the end of the report, the CASA makes recommendations about what they think is in the best interests of the child.
A CASA will usually work with only one case at a time, although that may include more than one child from a family.
In addition to the formal side of the CASA’s responsibilities, he or she will try to become a steady and supportive part of the child’s life. Many of these children in the social welfare system have experienced a series of involved adults throughout their lives, but lack a consistent and constant adult role model that they know will always be there for them and has their best interests at heart.
Although the scope of the CASA’s role varies from state to state, as does any financial assistance they may receive, a CASA will meet with the child(ren) as often as they feel necessary. They may help with homework, take them out for ice cream, go to a baseball game or a funfair, or just sit and talk quietly with them as needed.
One CASA in South Denver took his child to and from school every day for a year as the child did not have another reliable way to travel.
Former Chief Judge Roxanne Bailin of Longmont, who represented the 20th Judicial District until her retirement, said at a recent fund raising event for the Boulder County Voices for Children organization that she fully supported the CASA program.
Bailin relied on their input in child welfare court cases and had often found their input to be vital in determining the outcome of a case.
Another representative for an at-risk child is the GAL or Guardian ad Litem, which is also a court-appointed representative. In Colorado, this person is an attorney and is one of the professionals with whom the CASA works. Both have as their main responsibility, the welfare of the child, but from differing perspectives. The GAL representative may be different at a future court hearing, but the CASA remains constant.
Currently, there are over 260 CASAs in Boulder County, and sadly yet more are needed in Boulder County. There are approximately 200 open child abuses cases at any given time in the county and more than 300 children are placed in foster care every year.
The driving force behind this is substance abuse, combined with the difficulty of finding affordable housing in the county. Child welfare is an intersection between a lot of different social factors that come together in complex ways. Parental incarceration, drug use, housing instability all make it difficult for some of these families to survive intact.
Being a CASA is a role that requires serious commitment in a difficult environment. Nia Wassink, a past director, succinctly says, a CASA just needs to “show up and stay in their lives,” but it is essentially a 24/7 job – definitely a commitment.
And what became of Haleigh Banks?
Her CASA, Marianne, was a first-time volunteer, and she is still in Haleigh’s life after 5 years. Marianne worked with and supported Haleigh, helping her obtain a full scholarship to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder – the first in her family to attend college. Listening to both of them describing what they have experienced, it was difficult to distinguish which one feels she has gained most from the relationship.
To get further information about the Boulder County CASA program, check out their website at www.vfccasa.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (303)440-7059. The organization is located at 6672 Gunpark Drive #100, Boulder, CO 80301.
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