The number of children entering the foster care system is exploding, and there’s hardly enough people to stand by their side as court-appointed special advocates.
As of May 31, there were 566 children in the foster care system in Douglas County. CASA of Douglas County was only able to take on 272, or 48 percent, of those cases.
Since January, 146 children have come into its care, according to CASA data. In 2016, there were 117. The number has steadily grown since 2013, when 41 children came into care.
When the Department of Human Services pulls children out of unsafe homes, laws require that they receive a court-appointed special advocate, often called a CASA. These advocates are volunteers who are managed by a local CASA nonprofit agency.
CASA of Douglas County only has 56 volunteers on hand this year. In previous years, the nonprofit limited each volunteer to one child’s case. Now, with children entering the foster care system in droves, the nonprofit assigns one or two cases to each volunteer.
Advocates stand by children as they maneuver through the foster care system. They make sure children make it to their doctor, dentist and therapy appointments. They investigate cases by interviewing parents, teachers, foster parents and anyone else in that child’s life. Then they read court documents, police reports and behavioral assessments. Through their homework, advocates develop recommendations on what outcome is in the best interest for the child. They also write reports to present to judges.
“Essentially, they are the sole voice for the child in foster care,” said Richelle Bryant, the CASA executive director. “The CASA (advocate) is holding everyone else accountable. They are essentially behaving as a surrogate, stable parent that is watching over that child. It’s incredibly important work.”
Without an advocate, children move through the foster care system alone. They will have some support from caseworkers and foster parents, but those people are generally overburdened with other children’s cases.
The four full-time staff at the CASA of Douglas County office frequently bring up their desperate need for volunteers. They hold outreach events at Starbucks, in which they educate the public on what it’s like to be a CASA volunteer advocate. At one point, their booth attracted the interest of Amber Urbaniak, a barista at the coffee shop.
Urbaniak had just moved from Michigan and was looking for a way to get involved in her community. She saw the perfect opportunity with CASA, where she could get to know volunteers who are passionate about helping children, while helping a child herself.
“CASA is a really positive aspect of this community,” Urbaniak said. “It was something new for me to learn.”
Becoming a CASA advocate takes a bit of dedication at first, because there is a high level of training involved. Advocates are required to commit to 40 hours of training. A lot of it can be done online now, said the CASA program director, Katherine Elisar. At least two days of training are in a classroom setting.
Advocates are trained to monitor their own biases when they are investigating a case. For example, a living situation might not be up to their personal standards, like dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink, but it still could be a safe place to live.
Urbaniak has completed her training and was assigned her first case this month. Her case involves three siblings. She recently spent an hour getting to know them.
“I was super nervous, but seeing my children for the first time was a wonderful experience,” she said. “It was really positive.”
Long-time advocate Penny Lapham has been through instructions several times before. She has been volunteering with CASA for several years. She took on the role after she retired, since she had some early childhood education experience under her belt.
CASA has become her primary focus. She will go out of her way to visit a child who has been moved to a distant location, or one that has been admitted into a hospital in the middle of the night.
“As a CASA, I know that I’m paying attention to this child, and that’s all I have to do,” she said. “I can make sure that child doesn’t fall through the cracks and they get the services they need.”