May is National Foster Care Awareness month, and with over 423,000 kids in foster care, you may wonder, can one person make a difference in the life of a foster youth? Is there anyone advocating for them? Is their best interest taken into account? How are their voices heard? Who is speaking on their behalf? With many children removed from the home and their support and safety net fractured, how are they supported? Is anyone speaking up for them?
In 2019, 96, 929 volunteers advocated, supported, and were the voice for youth in foster care. The CASA/GAL program (Court Appointed Special Advocate and guardian ad litem) is a unique program that allows screened and trained volunteers from communities to be matched with youth in foster care and youth at-risk, allowing them to have their best interests advocated for and their voices heard. Volunteers dedicate time each week and month to interact with the child and the agencies and services that impact them.
Who are CASA’s/GAL’s?
CASA’s are everyday people in communities who desire to advocate for the best interests of a child in foster care. They are appointed by a judge and stay with a child throughout the child’s case. CASA’s/GAL’s can be paired with a child from birth through the state requirement of aging out.
How does it work?
The best interest advocacy model for CASA/GAL is that they will learn all they can about the child, their family, and life. They have legal access and authority to work with the education system, healthcare system, legal system, child welfare system, and other service providers, all of whom interact with the child. In their regular interactions with the child, they learn and identify the challenges, issues, and needs of the youth in order to best advocate to the court on behalf of the child. Often, a judge will read the CASA/GAL report first when evaluating a situation.
Is it successful?
In 2018, children with a CASA/GAL volunteer reached a permanent home faster when compared with all children in out-of-home care.
While social workers and case managers can oversee multiple cases, a CASA/GAL is only connected to one or two children (or a sibling group). They also stay throughout the duration of the case and have the ability to spend more concentrated time with the child, unlike any other agency, which increases their ability to advocate for the child’s best interests.
Depending on the state requirements of their local program, some CASA’s serve additionally as mentors, where they are encouraged to have fun outings and new experiences with the youth, developing a relationship in addition to advocacy.
Can one volunteer make a difference?
For many youth who are in foster care, their world has been turned upside down. Multiple placements, new schools, and court dates can leave youth feeling like they are in a world of chaos. They also may not have someone present and consistent to celebrate a birthday, take them on a picnic for the first time, or help them pick out a library book. This is one area where a CASA/GAL can make a difference. What may seem like small or insignificant actions can mean the world to a child in foster care.
Advocating for a school change, a doctor’s visit, or a legal right can also elevate a child’s voice where another adult may not be able to advocate because of a competing interest. A CASA/GAL can listen, hear, and speak for the youth’s best interests, helping a child who may feel hopeless or that they have lost their voice and have no say in their future.
CASA and GAL’s are able to serve as a liaison, connecting agencies, professionals, and needs for the bright future of a youth in care. See below to learn how advocates are making a difference.
- A CASA volunteer who was able to advocate for placements, removals, therapy, extracurricular activities, and ultimately adoption helped two sisters find their forever home.
- A CASA who advocated for sibling visits, kinship adoption, and successful transition to public school and was committed through every stage.
- A CASA who was committed to the educational success of a child with developmental disabilities and helped him to thrive, despite virtual learning and meeting during the pandemic.
One person can make a world of impact in the life of a child. With over 948 programs operating in 48 states, there is great opportunity for a volunteer to begin the journey of impact in their local community.