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Very brief foray into CASA program

All over town we see billboards (and occasionally, when we watch actual TV, commercials) promoting the CASA program - Court Appointed Special Advocate. They include the tagline, "Be a child's voice in court," and on the surface the program could not sound more useful and helpful. The idea that a trained volunteer could go into court hearings for a child in foster care and speak for that child is very appealing. We don't feel like we can foster right now, for various reasons, and so I thought perhaps becoming a CASA would be a way I could help out with the foster care system.

I applied, and then had to go out to Boonville, our county seat, for an in-person interview. That wasn't too bad. Training started last week. There are 30 hours of training plus you have to go and observe DCS hearings in person for a minimum of three hours. My first training session was last week. There were nine of us there - all white, middle-class women, average age probably around 45 years old - plus the instructor, the program director who has also been a CASA for several years.

As the 3.5-hour class wore on, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with both the content being taught and the attitude that came with it. I started writing down the things that bothered me because it was hard to exactly put my finger on it without seeing the words in black & white on paper. When I got home, I talked to David about how it went, and he was shocked at some of what had happened as well. I said I didn't feel it was what I thought it would be, but I decided to give the training another week and to go and observe some hearings and see CASAs in action.

However, as a few more days past, and I talked with some foster-care-parenting friends, I realized that it was actually really bad, and could see no way that another 3-hour session would change my feelings. I also in this time did a little research into the CASA program (wishing I had done this beforehand) and learned some not-so-great facts about it.

The manual and instructor both technically stated that reunification is always the goal and almost always the best outcome for children in foster care (and this 100% is what we were taught in our foster care classes), but the off-the-cuff remarks told a different story. The teacher made many comments about biological parents she's seen or worked with while in the CASA program, and all painted the biological parents as villains.

At one point, someone asked, "Are we allowed to bring our firearm with us when visiting a child?"

Firearm. When visiting a child in foster care. Wow. I know I am in the minority in this gun-toting red state, and most of the women in the class live in the rural parts of my county, but this was still rather shocking to me that anyone would think it would be (a) safe or (b) appropriate to do this. Then, the teacher's response was even more puzzling - "Well, I'm carrying right now. (much laughter) And I usually have mine with me but leave it in the car." No real clear answer on that. And as foster parents, I would be absolutely LIVID if a volunteer came into my home to meet with my foster child and thought it would be ok to bring a firearm into my home.

At another point, a trainee asked if it's ok to pray with the children. Again - wow, just wow. Okay. Then the teacher said, "Ideally it'd be great if all these parents would go to church. I just don't want them at mine!" (again, to much laughter) Such condescension and "us" vs "them" mentality.

And so it went. The actual manual was super boring and repetitive. There was one infographic page about child maltreatment statistics. One of them said "66: From July 13-July 14 there were 66 child deaths in Indiana due to abuse or neglect." I asked, "This means from July 2013 to July 2014 right?" And the instructor responded, "No, in a 24 hour period there were 66 deaths." This seemed insane to me - 66 deaths in a single day in any state would be national news! So once I got home, I searched and found a PDF on child maltreatment that included this statistic - and it clearly said "In fiscal year 2014..." In the whole year! So why is this woman saying it was in one month? And why does she think that is actually a logical statistic?

Well, as it turns out, I think it is for two reasons. First, I think the CASA program primarily exists to perpetuate its own existence - create a feeling of urgent need (such as the billboards saying "children are waiting for help!") so more people sign up, and thus get more funding to continue the program. Second, the entire program seems to be bent against biological parents from the start, and giving false ideas about abuse statistics serves their purpose in that way (such as saying there are 365 times more deaths in a year than there really are).

The instructor brought up many anecdotal examples that seemed to serve only to portray birth parents as terrible people. Near the end of class, she told of a mother who was an alcoholic. She said this woman would get so sick she'd have to be admitted to the hospital to have her blood cleaned out, then she'd get well enough to go home but end up back there in a few weeks or months. She made rude comments about this woman's coloring and she along with several class members made judgmental murmuring and head shaking during the story. I was fuming, sitting there knowing my own sister died of alcoholism less than six months before, my sister was in and out of the hospital over and over in the last years of her life, and yet there was no compassion or empathy in this story.

Statistically, it turns out that a child who has a CASA assigned to them (vs one that does not) spends longer in foster care and is less likely to be reunified with parents or other relatives permanently. So that in itself illustrates my perception that the program is against parents from the start.

A case was brought up where a teenage girl had run away and then wanted to get the morning-after pill. A class member said how can you ask a judge for that if it's against what you believe in? Oh puh-leez, people! It's like they have no concept of what it means to advocate for someone else. The teacher said, "You have to ask but hopefully the judge would ask your opinion and you could give it."

So in reality a CASA does not go to court to 'speak for the child,' but rather to speak for herself. If a child is telling the CASA they want to go home, they want to be with mom, but the CASA feels that's not the best situation, she goes to court and says something else. I would be ok with going in and saying, "This is what ___ wants to have happen." Kids deserve that. But that isn't what the program is, I have come to realize.


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