Over the last few years I have really felt God pointing me in the direction of foster care. I have helped provide respite care (baby sitter for foster families) and even teamed up with an agency to start the foster care application process.
Side note: in Oklahoma to be a foster parent you have to be connected with an adoption agency. Department of Human Services (DHS) no longer places children in foster homes, instead they reach out to a network of adoption agencies who then place the child within their network of families. This does not mean you have to be willing to adopt the child, though you can foster to adopt.
Every time I sat through the initial training (twice) or talked with various adoption agency caseworkers I would leave feeling like it just wasn't my time. Never did I feel discouraged or as though God lead me astray but instead like God had his hand on my shoulder telling me to "wait".
I remember so clearly over this past Christmas break when the light bulb went off in my head, it wasn't some profound moving moment but just a moment of absolute clarity. Right then I knew I needed to commit to advocate for children in the foster care system. I didn't know anyone that was a CASA and honestly don't remember how I even initially heard of the organization but I did know I needed to apply asap.
That was in December, here we are in August and I am approaching my first permanency hearing on my very first CASA case. I get asked all the time about my experience with CASA and wanted to take some time and share here. Be aware, its not all sunshine and rainbows, there are great things and there are really tough things. There are times I leave a meeting and just cry and cry BUT ultimately I am fighting for a little one who can't fight for themselves and that makes the hard stuff worth it.
What is CASA?
CASA stands for court appointed special advocate and just like the name says you are court appointed by a judge to speak on behalf of the child(ren) in the case.
What exactly does a CASA do and what are the time commitments?
As a CASA I am responsible for investigating the circumstances around the case, make recommendations to the court as to the best interest of the child(ren) both currently and in the long run, monitor case progress and implementation, and compose a court report to the judge outlining observations, concerns, and ultimately reunification/termination recommendations.
When I signed on to be a CASA I committed to stay with the organization for at least a year, that's the amount of time (give or take) each case runs for. As for my weekly/monthly time commitment, I typically work my case anywhere from 10-15 hours a month. This looks different for each worker and each case. Most of my time is spend observing visitation, conversations with care providers (think: DHS, Foster Parents, support organizations), and various meetings needed to assess the progress of the case.
For example: I will call/text the case worker at the beginning of the week to get any updates and double check that scheduled visitation is still taking place. This week I will head over to a CASA in-service training for an hour over lunch to refine my court report writing skills. At the end of the week I will take an hour and go observe visitation between my CASA baby and the natural parent(s). Usually after visitation I take some time to write through any observations or concerns and go over them with my CASA case manager or the DHS caseworker. Every week looks different, some times I am going to doctors appointments and others I am just sending an email to touch base. There are also weeks when I am traveling for work or have a lot going on that I don't touch base with anyone on my case... and that's OKAY. As it is with anything, the hours spent working a case differs from case to case and worker to worker.
How do you handle all that responsibility?
For the first month or two I had to really work at understanding and realizing that the outcome of this case is not all on my shoulders. I cannot count how many times I dwelled on not messing this all up and worrying about making a wrong decision. There was a turning point though, where I finally was able to accept that it isn't all on my shoulders and there are a lot of other people at work on this too. Ultimately, all I can do is advocate for the best interests of this child and let the judge make the final decision.
Do you get to continue a relationship with the kid(s) after the case is over?
This is one of the trickier questions to answer because it really "depends". As a CASA you never want to fill a role so big that the natural parents or adoptive parents can't move forward once the case is over. There is also a chance that you remaining involved reminds the natural parents of their "past" and hinders them from emotionally moving on. I have heard stories where the CASA has been apart of the families lives indefinitely and would call themselves close friends. All that to say, in the end its up to the parents (natural or adoptive) to make the decision on if you continue contact with the family after the case has been resolved.
I went into my case knowing there was a good chance that once it was all said and done I would never see this baby again. Knowing that my purpose was to advocate for him now and set him up for success in the future. With that mindset, I know I will be okay if I do continue to stay in contact or not.
Opinions, how do you keep them to your self?
All that know me, know I come with a lot of opinions. When working in this type of environment I had to be conscious of who I express those to and who I didn't. A CASA is never ever alone in this process. As a CASA you are assigned a case manager, they will become your life line, especially when you have all sorts of opinions on your case. Every time I come across something that makes me think, ruffles my feathers, hurts my heart, or even just plain frustrates me, the first person I call is my case manager. They see this day in and day out. They get it - simple as that. There have been times I wasn't sure if I was being too harsh or maybe needed to see the situation from a different angle and my case manager helped me walk through all of it. There are also others working on your same case that you can easily bounce thoughts and ideas off of.
The one place all opinions have to cease is in your court report to the judge. Judges cannot make decisions based on opinion but instead on facts. Facts are your friend and I take better notes now, since becoming a CASA, than I ever had before. When I feel like my heart is getting the best of me and maybe I'm not being as partial as I should, I remind myself of the facts of my case. The facts will lead to conclusions and those conclusions are much better than any opinion.
Will you chose to do this again after your current case is over?
Absolutely, 100 times over. This case has been really tough on me emotionally - as I'm sure most every case is - but even with the amount of tears I have shed I would still do it all over again.
I am responsible for some big decisions that will ultimately effect one sweet babies life forever. Granted, I am not the only voice to be heard and I don't have the final say, but what I do write in my court report will help lead a judge to their final answer. That's weighty for me. That's major responsibility. In the end, I know that I was able to speak up for a little one who can't speak for them self and *hopefully* put him/her on a path to great great great things.
So tell me, did I answer all your burning questions? Any other ones I missed?
note: none of the above pictures are child(ren) from my case. As a CASA we are not allowed to disclose the identity or facts around our case.