In 1977, Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Washington, was tired of waking up in the middle of the night worrying about his cases involving children. He was dissatisfied by the way the system worked when it came to the best interests of children. He came up with an idea of recruiting and training community volunteers to investigate, report, and advocate for a child’s best interest. He requested that a group of community members be recruited to provide children a voice in court. This was the start of the child advocate program—a small group of amazing citizen volunteers.
The success of the program spread quickly and soon other judges were starting similar programs in their courtrooms. It garnered national attention, and in 1982 led to the formation of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (CASA), whose goal was to extend the reach of the CASA program into every state in the nation. Now there are nearly 1,000 CASA and Guardian ad Litem programs nationwide, who recruit, train and support over 77,000 volunteers.
By 1984, the National CASA Association had received financial support from several significant sources: a grant from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, under the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and two one-year grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
On April 22, 1985, President Ronald Reagan presented the National CASA Association with the President’s Volunteer Action Award for “outstanding volunteer contribution, demonstrating accomplishment through voluntary action.”
National CASA has also received support from the Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation since 1989. This international women’s sorority selected CASA as its philanthropy and has provided funds for a variety of projects, including start-up grants and a public awareness video.
In August of 1989, the American Bar Association, the country’s largest professional organization of attorneys, officially endorsed the use of CASA volunteers to work with attorneys and to speak up for abused and neglected children.
In July of 1990, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges named CASA “Outstanding Volunteer Program” in America’s juvenile and family courts.
Also in 1990, the U.S. Congress authorized the expansion of CASA with the passage of the “Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990” (P.L. 101-647), so that a “Court Appointed Special Advocate shall be available to every victim of child abuse or neglect in the United States that needs an advocate.”
In July of 1991, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, named CASA an “Exemplary Program in Juvenile Delinquency Prevention.”
In 1992, Congress initiated funding of a grants program to expand CASA representation of abused and neglected children.
In the early 1990’s, the Child Welfare System in the State of Utah underwent major reform because of a concerned community member, Mrs. Donna Brown, who found the system lacking, especially with foster in care. The tipping point for Mrs. Brown was the case of Faith Barney. Doctors warned CPS workers of possible abuse, but Faith was returned to her parents by Division of Child and Family Services. Within a few weeks, 14-month old Faith Barney was killed by a blow to the head. Donna shared evidence she had collected from across the state of other accounts of children who had slipped through the cracks with the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco. She joined the National Center for Youth Law in suing the State of Utah in behalf of 17 children in foster care. In late 1993, the State of Utah settled the case and the Division of Child and Family Services went under the federal government’s oversight.
Donna Brown’s efforts made the CASA program a reality here in the State of Utah. As a result of the action, The Office of Guardian ad Litem and CASA was created in 1994, to provide legal representation to children. Every child who enters the child welfare system in the State of Utah is represented by a Guardian ad Litem attorney. There are over 40 Guardian ad Litem attorneys in our Eight Judicial Districts representing over 10,000 children involved in the court system. Utah Code Ann. §§ 78A-6-901 and 902 includes language dealing with the following: assignment of a Guardian ad Litem attorney; representation of the child; the role of a CASA volunteer; training; and authorization for using CASA volunteers and agencies to work in specific types of cases.
Since the lawsuit settled, Utah has gone from one of the worst systems in the country to one of the best. Recent data show that the state is investigating abuse and neglect more rapidly; case workers visit children monthly; foster children receive timely and appropriate health care services; and children move more quickly to permanency. In addition, caseworkers are better trained and have more manageable caseloads. The state’s healthcare system is considered innovative.
Advocates are appointed pursuant to U.C.A. § 78A-6-902 (4)(a), which states:
“An attorney Guardian ad Litem may use trained volunteers, in accordance with U.C.A. § 67-20-1 et seq…to assist in investigation and preparation of information regarding the cases of individual minors before the court.”
CASA volunteers are assigned to an individual case and gather information for the GAL attorneys by visiting consistently with child clients, attending child and family team meetings and court hearings, and tracking the child’s progress in school. In addition, these advocates ensure that the child is receiving needed services and is in a safe, nurturing environment by monitoring court orders and reporting to the GAL attorney.
CASA volunteers are carefully screened; they receive a background check and are provided with 30 hours of pre-service training and 12 hours of annual in-service training. Research conducted by the National CASA Association has found that children with CASA volunteers do better in school, spend less time in the foster care system, are less likely to re-enter foster care and are more likely to have a consistent, responsible adult present than other children in care.
As an integral part of the Office of Guardian ad Litem and CASA, Utah’s volunteer program is consistently growing with dedicated citizen volunteers who want to make a difference. In 2016, 756 volunteer advocates served 1299 children and donated 29,114 hours. The CASA program allows community members a unique opportunity to interact in these children’s lives and to be a part of the solution. Consistent adult support can help to counteract the abuse and neglect the children have endured. Please join us—let another child have their voice heard and their best interest represented by a Court Appointed Special Advocate.