CASA expands to serve more children

When a court is con-sidering removing a child from their home, a judge may hear reports from social services, attorneys for the parents, and foster parents who have been caring for the child; but in twelve counties, judges also hear from Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers who are there to advocate for the child, or sibling group, in question. These volunteers help children in the welfare system by visiting with them weekly, providing a consistent adult presence, and assessing their needs. The CASA program has been able to expand over the past two years because of a funding increase the legislature approved in March 2018.

CASA volunteers are court-appointed advocates for children involved in CHIPS, or Children in Need of Protective Services, cases. These highly-trained volunteers are sworn officers of the court reporting to a judge and act as the “eyes and ears” of the judge outside of the courtroom. CASA volunteers gather information about the adults in a child’s life, review relevant documents, and spend time with the child each week getting to know them. They also attend court hearings, work with parents, and make recommendations about what services the child or the family may need throughout the CHIPS process.

There are currently CASA programs in twelve counties, with another eleven counties that are working on starting programs in 2020 or 2021. In 2019, CASA programs served 1,000 children, thirty percent more than they helped in 2017. While this is a significant increase, an estimated 6,000 children went through the CHIPS process without help from a CASA volunteer due to their limited availability. The CASA program model involves one paid staff member who supports thirty volunteers on a local level. These volunteers can help as many as seventy-five children each.  The volunteers receive thirty hours of training from the CASA Program before they can volunteer and must complete twelve hours of continuing education each year.

2017 Wisconsin Act 255 increased grant funding for the CASA program by $80,000 to $250,000 annually while eliminating the sunset date for the program. The CASA program is required to submit an annual report to the Joint Finance Committee and the governor explaining how they are using the grant funding. As part of their annual report, they included information about the increase in children served, as mentioned above, as well as information about a special program they developed that provides children who are removed from their homes with a suitcase containing items to meet their basic needs like a pillow, blanket, pajamas, toothbrush, and shampoo. They often hear that children in foster care have to carry their belongings in trash bags. Their “My Stuff, My Bag” initiative provides donated necessities and a suitcase to transport them.

Children who are served by CASA volunteers spend a shorter amount of time in foster care, have better communication skills, and improved academic perfor-mance. CASA Programs are a cost-efficient investment. Children with a CASA volunteer spend 1.8 months less in foster care than other children in CHIPS cases, saving an average of $1,805 annually.

CASA volunteers really make a difference in a child’s life. The Wisconsin CASA Association has more than 500 volunteers helping children. To volunteer, or to learn more, visit their website at www.wisconsin-casa.org.