One volunteer explains her service with the Portsmouth nonprofit as her “opportunity to pour some good back into our world.” Another says she likes the idea of “knowing I might be making a difference in a child’s life and helping others.”
These women are part of a corps of volunteers assisting some of the most vulnerable people among us: children who have been the victims of serious trauma. And one organization is organizing their activities to touch as many lives as possible in the most effective ways possible.
In addition to its programs helping Portsmouth residents under age 18 charged with some offense, a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program is a key volunteer-based initiative operated by the charity Friends of the Portsmouth Juvenile Court.
Many U.S. communities offer such caring programs, through which judges match adult CASA volunteers with children who have been removed from a home after experiencing abuse or neglect.
These children live in a foster home or in the home of a relative other than the adult charged with inflicting harm. As the case is administered by the court or the abuser is incarcerated, which may be a period of several years, the CASA is mandated to advocate for the best interest of the child. Fulfilling this role means gathering all necessary information about the child’s life following the criminal incident for the judge and others in the judicial system.
“The CASA is the link between the judge, guardian ad litem, and social worker, who may be handling a caseload of up to 35 children and can’t gather as much detailed information about the child as the CASA,” said Natasha Knight, coordinator for Friends’ CASA program since 2015.
According to the Friends website, a child victim overseen by the legal system—especially a child of color—who has a CASA volunteer is more likely to be adopted, half as likely to re-enter foster care, substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care, and more likely to have a plan for permanency.
“The advocate role is so valuable. I know of many cases in which the judge would not have valuable information if it weren’t for the CASA,” said Knight.
Friends’ CASAs are officers of the court sworn in and assigned to a case by one of three judges in Portsmouth’s Domestic Relations Court.
“Our goal is to get children into safe and loving homes as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the CASAs act as the eyes and ears of the judge in the community,” she said. “They get to know the children very well. They are assigned to make sure that the child’s needs are being met.”
But CASAs are not foster parents. They don’t take children to movies, parks or other outings; it is not a big brother or big sister initiative or a mentor program.
“The main point is to get information about the child to the judge,” explained Knight.
Previously a volunteer at the Chesapeake CASA organization who later became its volunteer coordinator in 2012, Knight holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ashford University.
After graduation, Knight began working for an insurance company. She enjoyed her position there but “didn’t feel fulfilled.” When the company asked her to relocate, she declined and almost simultaneously became aware of a vacancy for Friends’ CASA coordinator position.
Knight had first-hand knowledge of the foster care system. Her parents took in foster kids as she was growing up and she has three adopted younger siblings.
These days, she is the only full-time Friends employee other than the executive director. There are also two part-time staffers.
Requiring accreditation, Friends’ advocate program is part of a national CASA network with many regulations.
“The national program is a trade organization that provides not only certification, but also a trademark, logo and marketing assistance,” Knight pointed out.
In Virginia, the Department of Criminal Justice Services oversees the commonwealth’s CASA programs and provides guidelines. One of its requirements is one full-time coordinator for every 30 cases.
Right now, Friends assists 31 children via 27 CASAs. In 2017, 49 children were served.
“It is rare for us to assign more than one case to a CASA. We don’t want to overburden volunteers,” explained Knight. “Unfortunately, this means we cannot help every child in the court system who could use our help.”
If Friends had more funding, they could help more Portsmouth children via 30 more cases in the city’s criminal justice system by hiring another CASA coordinator.
Occasionally, Friends allows a CASA to take a second case. And some cases have more than one child involved, but Portsmouth CASAs never work with more than three children total.
If a case involves a large group of siblings, young members of the same family are likely served by more than one CASA. In such cases, groups of children may be divided by the judge based on their different temporary residences.
The CASA program requires a significant commitment from volunteers as well as confidentiality to safeguard kids’ identities.
“Our volunteers must have a heart for children and a passion for making sure our children are safe,” said Knight.
Portsmouth CASAs include retirees, mid-career professionals and people fresh out of college looking to make a difference in the world.
Most volunteers are women but “we have some male volunteers who are phenomenal,” she pointed out.
Friends is trying to recruit more male volunteers, since a male presence is lacking in many homes of the children it serves. In 2019, they plan to involve more men using a model from Richland County, South Carolina called CASA Quarterback that is driven by men reaching out to other men.
“Typically, our volunteers want to make an impact,” Knight said. “Some tell us they had been victims of abuse and neglect or been in foster care, and that they wish they had worked with a CASA looking out for them.”
CASAs are subject to background checks from the FBI and Child Protective Services. Friends mandates 36 hours of pre-service training and three hours of in-court training.
The intensive training features homework about matters such as cultural competency, various government agencies and their functions, and writing reports for the court. Semi-annual trainings are conducted in groups to encourage volunteers to learn from each other, but occasional independent trainings are held for a single volunteer.
“Once the training is completed, we try to make matches between volunteers and cases based on what we know about their backgrounds and who they are. We also need to look at the CASA’s schedule and foster parent’s schedule,” she said.
Volunteers are absolutely required to attend court dates for the child they are helping. They also must visit the child at least once per month as a minimum standard, although most check in much more frequently to build rapport. Another must is obtaining needed information school liaisons, pediatricians and other key adults in the child’s life.
CASA service usually takes three to five hours per week; however, that number can increase as court hearings approach.
Since CASAs don’t take children anywhere—by law, they cannot transport them—they build relationships with board games, coloring books, and video games for younger kids. Teens can be assisted by focusing on how to get started on a successful adulthood.
Friends stewards its volunteers with an annual appreciation breakfast, although Knight reports that most of their volunteers eschew special recognition. The organization is considering development of a group called CASA Connection so volunteers can support each other while also maintaining confidentiality of the children.
“I am so grateful for all the people who volunteer to do this work. I know for some it can become overwhelming, but there are many who receive an enormous benefit for their endeavor,” Knight said.
She mentioned one CASA, who is about to retire from her Friends volunteer service after working with one child for 11 years. She recently saw him graduate from high school with honors and he is heading to Old Dominion University this fall.
“She stuck with him till he was 18. He had been in the same foster home that whole time. She was so proud when he graduated,” Knight reported.
More information is available at fopjc.org.