Portland, OR. The Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children has faced challenges moving its services online but continues to advocate for foster children in the courtroom. One silver lining is that online orientations due to the pandemic have unexpectedly helped the organization recruit younger volunteers. CASA Executive Director Betsy Stark Miller explains that there was some initial concern that recruiting CASA volunteers online, instead of in-person, would be an issue, but it has had unforeseen benefits. “I have watched the age demographic drop,” she said. “This is great because having a young CASA advocate is very beneficial if you are working with teenage or preteen youth.” 

Before this change, most volunteers were 50 to 60-year-old women. Now, they are seeing volunteers in their 20’s. 

Anyone can be a CASA volunteer. They train for 35 hours before taking on their first case. Then, work under a supervisor.

Along with diversifying the age range, CASA for Children has been working to be more culturally responsive. Many kids in foster care are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), while the vast majority of CASAs are white and may have a socioeconomic situation that enables them to do highly time-intensive volunteer work. Miller and her associate Laura Collins (Major Gifts, Development & Communications Director) said that CASA’s “Knowing Who We Are” training helps volunteers recognize their own social positioning in order to help them better assist kids who come from different backgrounds. “I think the community needs to know that we are doing everything we can by training our CASAs and our staff to be culturally sensitive and responsive to the kids that disproportionately come into foster care who are children of color,” Collins said.  

CASA for Children’s social awareness training helps mitigate the racial divide that often occurs between advocates and clients.

CASA for Children already had a remote plan prepared when the pandemic hit, and fortunately has been able to keep all staff supervisors employed. However, Major Gifts, Development & Communications Director Laura Collins said that virtual interaction is not ideal for CASA volunteers and their clients. One CASA said that it’s challenging to not be more physically present with the kids. “It really speaks to the commitment these CASAs have to this program,” Collins said. “We are still able to successfully provide really high-quality advocacy to the kids who have CASAs right now.” 

Many volunteers are even taking on a second case. “The thing that’s been really powerful is our team is experiencing that emotional commitment,” Miller said. “What’s been really impressive to me, and overwhelmingly uplifting, is that our CASAs have stuck through this really difficult time. Our CASAs would not stay if our team was not doing a wonderful job, because it’s not easy.” 

COVID-19 has made some things more difficult. In many cases, hearings have been postponed due to technical difficulties. This takes a major toll on the kids and their families. Courts are backlogged in Washington and Multnomah counties. “With COVID in place I am really concerned that we’re gonna see cases last longer than they should,” Miller said. Miller and Collins also said that going into the future, they expect to see an increase in the number of kids who need their services. During pandemic restrictions, domestic abuse is still happening, but kids aren’t leaving home as much, which allows it to stay hidden. 

“Children aren’t going out and getting their voices heard,” Miller said. “They’re showing up in emergency rooms with more severe abuse markers than doctors have seen in recent history.” As abused kids return to school and life outside the home, mandatory reporting will expose these cases and the kids will turn to services like CASA as they go through the foster care system. 

Children in the foster care system without permanent living arrangements need community support during the pandemic more than ever.

CASA for Children was able to move its annual auction online to maintain some revenue, but the nonprofit still needs support from the community during this time. 

“We really need the support of our community to still step up and help us,” Collins said. “Sure we are in the foster care sector, but really were about healing and resiliency. We’ve always been about that, it’s at the core of our mission, helping kids who have gone through profound trauma heal and hopefully have a better chance of a life that has potential.”

Here’s a video about the organization:

From CASA for Children:

A CASA is the tireless and passionate protector of a child who has been abused or neglected and is experiencing the trauma of involvement in the system. They are granted tremendous authority by the court and are able to do what it takes to see that a child is not ignored, their best interests and critical needs are addressed, and that the presiding judge is able to understand the true facts of a child’s condition in an over-burdened child welfare system.CASAs are in a unique position to work in the system without being of the system. Throughout the process, CASAs have permission to visit the children regularly, talk to a child’s parents, teachers, caseworkers, doctors and therapists in order to hear all perspectives and give an unbiased portrayal of the case to the judge. CASA advocates help kids through the system safely, quickly, and more effectively.