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CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Central Virginia: Meeting the Challenges
There are many nonprofits across the Commonwealth with any number of missions, names, and acronyms. One acronym that has found a home in a little more than half of Virginia’s localities over the past 20 years is CASA. This stands for court appointed special advocates. These CASA programs and CASA volunteers join to advocated on behalf of abused and neglected children. One of the state’s older and larger programs is headquartered in Lynchburg. I’d like to share with you what that program’s efforts have been to meet the contemporary challenges of a nonprofit in service to Virginia.
In Lynchburg, CASA of Central Virginia (CASACV) prepares citizen volunteers to advocate before government on behalf of children who have been abused and/or neglected by a parent or legal guardian. The goal of our advocacy efforts is to secure safe, permanent homes for our region’s childhood victims in as little time as possible. The CASA program in Central Virginia is one of 28 throughout the Commonwealth, and serves the communities of Amherst, Bedford, Campbell, Lynchburg and Nelson. Central Virginia is the state’s third largest program in number of children served (455 last year). According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), more than 7,000 children were abused and neglected in Commonwealth last fiscal year with nearly 4,500 of them being served by CASA programs and volunteers across the state.
Here is a history of the CASA program in Central Virginia; a look at current challenges we face; a discussion on how these challenges are being met; and implications for the future growth and direction of CASA programs across the Commonwealth.
VIRGINIA’S CASA HISTORY
Virginia’s first CASA program began in 1986 in Newport News. Three years later under the leadership of Lynchburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations (J&DR) Court Judge Dale Harris a CASA program was developed to serve Lynchburg and Amherst. Within the program’s first year 12 volunteers were trained and 53 children were served.
The DCJS’ statewide regulations of 1990 were revised in 1998 and are due for subsequent revision this year. A key component of the department’s regulations is their definition of the role of CASA volunteers. Their role is currently to: (1) investigate the circumstances of each child’s case, submit to the court a written report of their investigation, (3) monitor the case to ensure compliance with court orders, (4) assist the guardian ad litem (the child’s legal reprasentative) if one has been appointed, and (5) report allegations of abuse or neglect to the department of social services.
There are 28 operational CASA programs in Virginia. Some serve single jurisdictions while others like CASACV are regional. Among Virginia’s 134 localities, 68 (about half) are served by CASA programs. For Virginia’s counties (41 of 95 with programs) the numbers are not as good as for the cities (27 of 39 serving children). Our CASACV serves two cities and four counties.
The major challenges facing CASACV can be summarized in four areas: funding, volunteers, bureaucratic politics, and rural presence.
The number one challenge facing CASACV is likely the same facing most nonprofit organizations: funding. This challenge is made particularly acute due to the transience of our major funding sources. One source of transient funding is the National CASA Association. National CASA receives funding from the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the US Department of Justice. The funding is then redistributed to the nearly 1,000 CASA programs across the country in the form of grants. The legislated purpose of these grants is to ≥initiate and expand≤ CASA programs. The CASA program in Central Virginia was initiated in 1989 and in June 2006 completed the extent of its expansion. Over the last six years (the period of CASACV’s expansion), National CASA awarded more than $270,000 (half that amount in the last two years alone) in grants to the Central Virginia program. Those funds are no more, and their departure leaves a tremendous financial void in the organization’s revenues.
Another transient source of funding is the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Grant. The grant program is administered by the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS), and grantees must demonstrate in their application how their projects will obtain future resources for continuation, and they must also demonstrate their potential for securing funding from other sources. The VOCA is designed to terminate and the potential hole left in CASACV’s budget is nearly $50,000 per year.
It is the aim of those who design transient funding programs that some other source will emerge to sustain funding of important programs. Our CASACV, like other CASA programs across the state, looks to the General Assembly to assume an increasing share of program funding. Currently the General Assembly through a line item in the DCJS budget provides a little over $200 per child for each of the more than 4,500 children served by CASA volunteers and programs. These dollars are however not evenly distributed on a per child basis and for CASACV the number is actually closer to $100 per child served.
Aside from funding, another major challenge is preparing a sufficient number of volunteers to serve as court appointed special advocates. There are a number of factors that go into assembling an appropriate volunteer force; among them is the primary question “Is our volunteer community representative of the broader community?” Is our volunteer cohort diverse? Diversity of course relates not only to ethnicity but also to gender, neighborhood, religion, interests and socioeconomic status. Our CASACV serves five communities. It is important that we make a contentious effort to represent each of these communities to an appropriate level within the volunteer ranks. This proves a challenge.
Bureaucratic politics describes our third major challenge. The child abuse and neglect bureaucracy is a complex one involving executive branch agencies like DSS (at the state and local level) and DCJS; the judicial branch’s J&DR Courts; and elected officials at all levels of government. Maintaining balance within the bureaucracy is difficult. If not properly managed, abused and neglected children are the ones that ultimately suffer. As the bureaucracy grows more complex and as problems of abuse and neglect become more acute, it will be necessary for lawmakers and policymakers to constantly review and where necessary redirect efforts of CASA volunteers on behalf of abused and neglected children. In order to be a part of that ongoing review, it is important that CASACV maintain relationships with local, state and national office holders, judges and agency heads. Beyond the bureaucratic politics, as a United Way of Central Virginia Member Agency, CASACV must also maintain balance within a regional system of non-profit service providers.
The final challenge to explore, and one not as acute in Central Virginia, is rural presence — the ability to provide services in our sparsely populated areas. As the earlier mention of statewide coverage noted CASA programs have a significantly higher presence in our urban areas (69% of cities) than in our rural communities (43% of counties). This should come as no surprise, with limited resources to draw from it is indeed harder to establish programs in rural areas. CASACV is only able to serve the rural areas of Central Virginia because of our support within the region from our urban centers.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
The challenges: funding, volunteers, bureaucratic politics and rural presence, may seem daunting. To address these challenges it became apparent that we first needed to clarify our mission. Why do we do what we do? Who do we serve? And how do we serve them? The answers: We do what we do out of a since of civic duty. We serve abused and neglected children in our community. And we serve the children by moving their case to a decision as quickly as possible.
In clarifying civic duty we focused on the founding principles of our nation; a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens. We found in this approach a direct correlation to our mission statement. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, when operationalized for abused and neglected children means securing a safe, permanent home. Children who are abused and/or neglected do have their lives endangered. For that reason law enforcement personnel are empowered to remove them from the abusers ≠ their parents or legal guardians. However in removing the child we impose a temporary restriction on the child’s liberty. The CASA serves to promote the restoration of full liberty to the child. Full liberty for a child we believe can only be experienced within a family environment. That is why we focus on terminating the child’s relationship with the state and creating (or recreating) a relationship with a loving family (the child’s own or an adoptive family) as soon as possible. This is referred to as permanency in court terms. It is only within a safe, permanent home that a child can have full right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that is the ultimate goal of CASA involvement.
That focus on mission allowed us then to reexamine and plan for our challenges. On examining funding we arrived at the decision that a balanced funding approach was best. CASACV will in the future seek balance. A portion we believe should come from state sources ≠ primarily DCJS through our legislated line item. There should also be a local component funded by local government grants and United Way allocations. Both groups contribute now; our effort will focus on sharing with them our continued need for their support and our continued contribution to their efforts at providing service to their taxpayers and contributors. Our CASACV itself will also work hard to raise funds. Next April we will hold our eight annual Heart & Sole Shoe Market. Central Virginia’s largest one day shoe sale, the event draws more than 5,000 shoppers. We are working hard to maximize the event’s revenues. Additionally, CASACV will seek to secure an increasing portion of its operating funds from direct appeals and planned giving.
Regarding volunteers, CASACV has focused on the academic nature of the volunteer training program. In partnership with Central Virginia Community College (CVCC), CASACV has designed a training program that utilizes National CASA’s curricula and introduces the CASA program to future practitioners (students enrolled in a course of study leading to child development, the courts, law enforcement or social services); community advocates; and future CASA volunteers. This broadening of the recruitment pool we believe will broaden our volunteer base. What attracted us particularly to partnering with CVCC was an examination of the school’s diversity numbers. CVCC’s student body is, according numbers reported on the US Department of Education’s website, within one percentage point of meeting both the ethnic and gender diversity of the area they serve. We hope to approach their success through partnership. Another added benefit of partnering with the community college system is their rural presence. We are hopeful that this program will allow us to extend training to our more sparsely populated areas of the state, thereby creating a potential pool of CASA volunteers within those areas not currently served.
We are reaching out also within the bureaucracy. CASACV is fortunate to be regional. We maintain relationships with five J&DR judges and with five local social service department directors. We see urban, suburban and rural cases. We see communities that rely on judicial resolution of cases. We see communities that rely on administrative resolution. We see a good representation of the statewide picture. As such we are seeking to note variations at the local level and to provide input to policymakers. In two of our localities we are collocated with the courts we serve. In one we are collocated with social services and in another we are collocated with local government. Our fifth locality we serve through a neighboring community. We are seeking a bureaucratic balance that allows us to remain child centered.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
We began with a discussion of the challenges facing CASACV and the ways in which we are meeting those challenges. Our challenges are of course very similar to those faced by programs across the Commonwealth. The methods we are adopting to address funding and volunteer recruitment and training we believe can have application across the state. Balanced funding and broadening the volunteer base through partnership with educational institutions we believe will pay dividends to our program.
We noted earlier the ability to extend our training to sparsely populated areas. We are also developing network capabilities at CASACV that allow our remote offices to work collectively from independent locations. This we believe has implications for rural counties that can not support the overhead costs of CASA programs, but may be able to support the program costs if they can secure administrative support from neighboring, established programs.
And finally, we must find a way to provide service to that portion of the more than 7,000 abused and neglected children in the Commonwealth who on an annual basis do not have benefit of a CASA program nor a CASA volunteer in their young, threatened lives.
Lacy Ward, Jr. is the executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Central Virginia, based in Lynchburg. He is a past contributor to the Virginia Review.
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