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CASA program uses volunteers to advocate for kids

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Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon

Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon would like to see CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in Knox County Juvenile Court by the end of the year. CASAs are volunteers who serve as fact-finders for the court and act on behalf of the child.

MOUNT VERNON — For children involved in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases, safe, permanent housing is critical to their long-term well-being. Knox County Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon is charged with determining whether these children should return to their family, be placed with a family member, or go into foster care.

As of Dec. 29, 152 abuse/neglect/dependency cases were filed in Knox County Juvenile Court. That's down from 174 in 2019 and 173 in 2018. For the six-year period 2012-17, filings averaged 128 annually and ranged from 90 to 176.

Each case represents a child.

“In many cases, multiple children/multiple cases are filed for an individual household. I do not have an accurate 'household' count,” Nixon said.

To attain a positive outcome for these children, Nixon needs complete, accurate information. He gets much of this information through guardian ad litems (GALs).

This year, Nixon is introducing a new program that will reduce costs for the county and supplement the local GALs. Most importantly, the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate) will help him make decisions that are in the best interest of the child.

History of child advocates

Individual states have long been charged with protecting the health and safety of children. Until the late 1960s, it was assumed that the court would provide sufficient protection.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children have a constitutional right to counsel in juvenile delinquency proceedings. Courts began appointing guardian ad litems (GAL) to represent the child's interest during litigation.

The concept spread to include children involved in abuse and neglect cases. In 1974, the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and Treatment Act reinforced the use of GALs, requiring states that received federal funding to provide a GAL for every child affected by an abuse and neglect proceeding.

GALs can be attorneys or volunteers. In Knox County, Nixon follows the practice of most Ohio courts and uses only attorney GALs.

“Currently, Knox County has eight GALs on the approved list.  We have enough to cover our cases, but we could always use more,” Nixon said. “I generally talk to new attorneys in the area regarding their interest in serving as GALs and encourage them to apply. Acceptance onto the list is up to my discretion, and they all have to be current with Supreme Court guidelines.”

Judge David Soukup, a judge in Seattle, WA, felt that he was not getting enough information to make well-informed decisions about the future of the children who appeared in his court. In 1977, he began recruiting community volunteers as child advocates, giving rise to the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program.

CASAs, like GALs, serve as a judge's “eyes and ears.” They talk with the child's friends, family, teachers, parents, and others who have a significant relationship with the child. They also consider the child's wishes. The CASA submits a report to the court, giving recommendations on placement and treatment options.

After the hearing, the CASA ensures the child gets the necessary services and provides support and encouragement to the child. Because a case can remain active for as long as two years, and residential placement options might change up to three times during that time, the CASA frequently is the only consistent adult presence in a child's life.

Research supports Nixon's statement that “the outlook across the board by using CASAs is good:”

  • The number of children re-entering the child welfare system is reduced by 50%.
  • Judges report the impact is most pronounced in long-term well-being (92.2%), getting appropriate services to child and family (83%) and psychological well-being (79.9%).
  • 93% of judges report a positive experience with child advocates.

“The people who volunteer as CASAs, and the attorneys who serve as GALs, have a passion for helping children and families. The more people like this we have helping and interacting with these children and families, the better the outcomes should be,” Nixon said. “My view is that the majority of families involved in abuse/neglect/dependency cases are not bad people; they are not actively trying to harm their children. But for one reason or another, they need help. CASAs and GALs provide referrals, assistance, accountability, and other tangible and intangible benefits to these families in addition to assisting the court with decision-making.”

Nixon started planning for CASAs last year. As with so many things, COVID-19 interrupted the process. Now he's ready to move ahead.

The path forward

Courts can structure CASA programs in several ways. A court-based system is typically run by the court and supported by the taxpayers. Programs can be a combination of court-based and private/nonprofit organizations. Nixon favors a third option, which is for the court to partner with an existing entity and let that organization run the program.

“I think this is the best plan for Knox County, to be private or nonprofit,” he said.

Nixon is working with Ashland Parenting Plus to bring the CASA program to Knox County. Based in Ashland County, APP will have the responsibility of recruiting, screening, and training local CASA volunteers.

“They will employ whoever needs to be employed and be responsible for the reporting,” Nixon said.

In turn, the juvenile court will provide office space, phones, and ITT support.

Ohio CASA provides $50,000 for the first two years of the program. That covers either one full-time employee or two part-time employees to handle volunteers, training, and reporting. Funding thereafter is undetermined.

“I would hope to make it self-sustaining, either a separate 501(c)(3) or continue with Ashland Parenting Plus,” Nixon said.

Nixon wants to start the program the first half of 2021 and get either one or two employees trained to the point where they can run the program. The next phase is recruiting and training the CASA volunteers.

“I see CASAs in the courtroom by the end of 2021, early 2022,” Nixon said. “I have had overwhelming response of people who want to get involved with this. Dozens of people have expressed an interest in serving as CASA volunteers.”

When the court initially receives a referral, it sometimes is not clear whether it is a case of abuse, neglect, or dependency. Nixon plans to use CASAs in dependency-only cases. He does not know the number of those cases as the court's computer system does not index cases that way.

“I am comfortable stating that over half of the cases are initially filed as dependency-only or are pled down to dependency-only.  I am working with our software provider to record that metric more accurately going forward,” he said.

Nixon will continue to use a GAL in abuse and neglect cases.

“One of the advantages of the CASA program is the reduction of the entire amount of money we have to pay out for GALs,” Nixon said. “If we find the abuse or neglect after adjudication is dependency only, at that point we can let the GAL go and bring on a CASA. We will have some cost initially for the GAL, but we can later release the GAL. I can't give a percentage, but there will be a tangible savings.”

The county has budgeted $125,000 every year for GALs and did so again for 2020-21.

Our neighbors' experience

Nationally, there are nearly 1,000 CASA programs. In Ohio, 45 CASA programs serve 55 counties.

Richland County's CASA program runs through the court. Established 22 years ago, the current staff of four manages 60 to 70 volunteers. CASA Director Brooke Henwood is enthusiastic about program results and the cost savings for the county.

“I can't give you a dollar amount, but if I am having 60 to 70 volunteers taking on these children, that means that for all of those children, a GAL is not being paid,” she said. “It's very much a savings to the county.”

Henwood said the juvenile court magistrate always prefers to have a CASA on the case because they tend to be more thorough and provide details.

“In most circumstances, CASA volunteers have more knowledge and have a good relationship with the child. Frequency of contact allows us to have better information so that we can make good, solid decisions,” she said.

In Ashland County, Ashland Parenting Plus runs the CASA program. Established about three years ago, Ashland County's program is still relatively new.

“I supported the program, but did I want to run the program? I just knew that I was not going to have the time to get it up and running,” said Ashland County Juvenile Judge Damien Vercillo of his decision to go with APP. “We already had a relationship with Ashland Parenting Plus through other programs they offer.

“[APP] hired a full-time director. I think that's a big positive because I will tell you that CASAs give us excellent reports. I think she reviews them all,” he continued. “All of [the CASAs] come to hearings. I never have to appoint an attorney for a CASA because the director is an attorney and she comes for them [on their behalf]. So that's a positive.”

Vercillo said he has not noticed a big monetary savings, partly because he still appointed GALs for every case during the program's initial stages and volunteer training.

“Now that we've been with CASA for awhile, we've cut down on the number of GALs, especially on the dependency side,” he said.

Vercillo said it is hard to quantify the number of CASAs used in Ashland County's juvenile court.

“We do not have a CASA for every case,” he said. “That's a nice goal, but we have too many cases.”

Vercillo is cautious about the workload he gives a CASA volunteer.

“I don't give brand new CASAs too many cases while they get their feet wet,” he said. “I limit it to about six families. In families with several siblings, all siblings get the same CASA.

“We have a very high turnover in our department caseworkers. With the CASA, if they're on a case, for the most part they are stable, so the kids and the family develop a relationship with them, and that has been a positive,” said Vercillo. “I would say that all in all, we are pleased with how it's going.”

Ashland Parenting Plus

In October 2016, Ashland Parenting Plus hired Attorney Jennifer D. Keller to establish a CASA program in Ashland. Currently, APP only serves Ashland County. The Knox County program is the only partnership being discussed. 

Keller said that Ashland juvenile court's CASA program currently has 19 active volunteers.

“The coronavirus pandemic hit our volunteer numbers hard; however, I’m happy to report that due to the hard work of our CASA staff, we are making a comeback,” she said.

As with Ashland, Ohio CASA will provide $50,000 for the first two years in Knox County. Third-year funding for Ashland comes from a variety of sources, including the Victims of Crime grant through the Ohio Attorney General's Office and Ashland County United Way.

“In addition, we were recipients of an endowment award through the Ashland County Foundation and received matching funds in order to receive that endowment from several area churches and private donations,” Keller said. “Five Stones church was kind enough to give to us as part of their fifth-Sunday giving program. Ashland University students also chose us to do a project competition and won, resulting in a donation to CASA. We are fortunate to have the support of our local community. We do not receive any funding through the county commissioner’s office.”

As to whether APP will hire one or two employees to run Knox County's program, or whether one employee might be an attorney, Keller said that it is a bit too early to comment on staffing plans.

In addition to the CASA program, Ashland Parenting Plus offers programs relating to family and teen intervention, family mentoring, a teen pregnancy program, and parent support in drug abuse and divorce.

“All of these things I think in the future would be great to implement,” Nixon said. “I am hopeful we can bring some of these to the community. That's down the road a little bit.”

For more information about becoming a CASA volunteer, call 740-393-6798 or email probatejuvenile@co.knox.oh.us.

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