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  • Who Are the Advocates?

    by Dynishal P. Gross

    Santa has his helpers, and thanks to the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Family Court judges have theirs. While Santa’s helpers labor in North Pole workshop to make toys, CASA volunteers give their time to make sure that children in foster care are moved into permanent homes as quickly and smoothly as possible.

    CASA was born in a Seattle courtroom more than 23 years ago. A family court judge felt he needed additional information to make life-changing decisions for the children and families who appeared before him, and wondered if there might be a role for volunteers in this work. Today there are more than 900 CASA programs across the United States. More than 60 volunteers serve in New York City, advocating for children in each of the five boroughs. Last year CASA served more than 2,000 children in 750 separate cases.

    To understand the special function of a CASA, one must first understand the cast of characters involved in the case of each NYC foster child: a social worker from the foster care agency to which the child is assigned, a case manager from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), a law guardian, often assigned from Legal Aid, a city lawyer from Corporation Counsel, and perhaps the lawyers of one or more of the biological parents. These all must be present each time the child’s case appears before a judge. At the center of this web sits the child, in foster care until a safe, permanent home can be found.

    A child’s case may stagnate because of staff turnover or because any one of the professionals involved in resolving a case has missed a hearing. A CASA volunteer may be assigned at this point, to expedite such a case.

    “We call everyone to find out what’s going on,” says Amy Feldman, the president of CASA-NYC. “CASA volunteers do research to connect the biological parent or child to necessary services, and write a report to the judge making certain recommendations.” A CASA volunteer may also be assigned early on in special cases involving abandoned infants or parents dealing with substance abuse.

    While it may be initially surprising that such critical work is left to volunteers, Feldman explains that in fact, volunteers are particularly suited to this role. “We are impartial; we work for the court itself. This allows us to make an assessment of what is in the child’s best interest, and go with that.”

    Prospective CASAs receive six weeks of training in legal issues, case management, and child development. To underscore the seriousness of their role, new CASAs are sworn in by a family court judge. CASA volunteers give an average of 20 hours each month, much of it on the phone. They are supported throughout the year by the 11-person CASA-NYC staff.

    CASA volunteers are not mentors. Rather than experiencing the warm, fuzzy feelings which come from interacting personally with a child, they wade into the system, to uncover information and assist the judge in coming to a decision which is truly in the child’s best interest. In Feldman’s words, “This is the purest form of child advocacy.” #

    Training for new volunteers will begin in January 2001. For more information, visit or call Muriel LeConte at (212) 334-4010.

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