Anita Johnson volunteered to become a Minnesota CASA (a court appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children) in 2021 but was turned away. Johnson seems like just the kind of person you would want to meet with children involved in the child-welfare system and represent their best interests in court. She majored in psychology at the University of Minnesota and interned in the counseling office there. After graduation, she went to work in a charter school and considered becoming a foster parent. She has done other volunteering as well, including through her church. Why wouldn’t the CASA program want someone with her experience? Because the state is trying to shut down CASA entirely, apparently believing that only professionals, not volunteers, should handle the job. While the board that oversees the program decided last month after a public outcry that it would not end CASA, the program is down to only 25 volunteers from a few hundred, and is no longer recruiting or training anyone. 

The CASA program, which operates in almost every state, assigns volunteers to meet with children in the child-welfare system—that is, those living in foster homes or with relatives, or who have been reunited with their biological parents after a period of separation. In addition to those visits, CASAs also speak with teachers and counselors to get a full picture of the child’s situation and then present those findings to a judge every two or three months at hearings about the child’s placement.

Caitlin O’Day, who entered the program after extensive training in 2018 before she was pushed out in 2022, did not have a background working with children, but she was familiar with CASA because her sorority at the University of Missouri had raised money for it. She would typically spend at least ten hours a month meeting with children and performing her other responsibilities. “I was able to get the kids to open up through play,” O’Day said. She would engage in games of hide and seek, or the kids would show her things they made at school. She would ensure that the kids had gone to their therapy appointments, and she would speak with social workers about the parents’ situation. She is conversational in Spanish and would volunteer for cases that required that skill. O’Day describes preparing meticulous reports for the court and says that she was disappointed when the agency eliminated some of the questions that CASAs were supposed to answer to provide judges with a full picture. She knew the judges had read what she wrote because they would ask about details mentioned in the written reports but not in her presentations. O’Day worked on only one case at a time and would take days off from work to attend court hearings.

Professional guardians ad litem—the alternatives to CASAs—typically handle about 25 or 30 cases at a time, so they obviously cannot devote ten hours a month to each child. What, then, is the state’s argument for closing the CASA program? The chairman of the Guardian ad Litem Board until last month, Crysta Parkin, told the Star Tribune, “We don’t have volunteers prosecuting. We don’t have volunteers doing public defense. I think it’s hard to see it as a volunteer role anymore.” Others are concerned about “data security” and “the increasing complexity of child protection cases.”

Despite a recently expanded budget of $24 million for Minnesota’s guardian ad litem program, the state has trouble finding people to fill these positions, and there is lots of turnover. The CASA program, in contrast, has more than 200 people ready and willing to start, according to Gerard Bodell, president of the board of CASA Minnesota.

Bodell also questioned the quality of the interactions between guardians ad litem and kids in their caseload. Is it “a drive-by or is it a quality visit?” Parkin told the Star Tribune that spending a lot of time with a child is not necessary. “They are supposed to conduct an independent investigation in the least intrusive manner for this child and family. If what you want is to have is a personal, mentoring ‘big brother, big sister’ role . . . there are so many organizations out there.”

One major problem with child welfare, both in Minnesota and nationally, is that it is a closed system, with little public oversight. It is not uncommon to hear that the lawyers for the agency, the parents, and the professional guardians ad litem have made decisions about the placement of a child before they even go to court. Without programs like CASA, the only people who see the system up close are the professionals who are paid to be there and the families involved in it. And the outsiders who do get to see the system’s inner workings—foster families, for example—often must keep silent, lest the professionals retaliate against them. One of the reasons family courts seem to operate outside of the law is that few people watch over them. Family court rulings are rarely appealed.

In New York, family court judges seem to be going rogue more frequently. One court recently placed a baby back with a father who had lacerated her tongue on a supervised visit, with tragic consequences for the child. Another New York family court judge recently propositioned a mother on a swingers’ website after she appeared before the judge in court.

CASAs tend to be professionals who often have a background with kids and a desire to help. They are not worried about their pensions. They don’t have an ideological axe to grind. They are the kinds of people we want to get an inside look at the child-welfare system. We want them to spend more time with these kids—to see whether they are safe and well cared for in their homes. We want someone to follow up with the professionals who are paid to look out for the children’s interests. In a system often wrapped up in the desires and needs of adults, we need people dedicated to being a voice for children. Unfortunately, many child-welfare professionals don’t like being watched.

Photo: gesrey/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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