Court Advocate Program Grows, But How Much Does It Help?

Hollie I. West
November 1, 2000

Judge David W. Soukup of Seattle faced a choice that tears apart juvenile and family court judges: remove a three-year-old girl from her home because of an emergency room doctor’s suspicion that the girl’s mother had beaten her, or send her home with that very mother, who said the girl’s bruises came from falling.

The King County Superior Court judge had no independent assessments about the girl’s personality, family life and medical history. Professional guardians ad litem and social workers were unavailable because of crunching caseloads — a common dilemma for juvenile and family court judges. But Soukup had an idea.

He wondered if someone could recruit and train volunteers to investigate such cases and make recommendations. The judge invited some social welfare professionals to talk about it. “The day of the meeting I walked in expecting to see four people,” he recalled in a 1992 interview, “and there were 50 people.”

That meeting was in 1976. This year, 228,000 children in 49 states will appear in hearings with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) beside them. The Seattle-based National CASA Association has grown to nearly 53,000 volunteers. Its recent 19th annual conference in suburban Washington, D.C., was subsidized by ExxonMobil, Continental Airlines and the Justice Department, among others. And it has earned one of the coveted prizes among national child and youth initiatives: a federal budget earmark of its very own. A Fiscal Year 2001 appropriations bill working through Congress would fund National CASA at $12 million annually.

“Every other child advocates’ group would like to get similar funding,” says CASA supporter Richard J. Fitzgerald, a family court judge in Louisville, Ky.

How has CASA grown from a judge’s impromptu idea to a nationwide network directly funded by Congress? It filled a need, built on the 1980s movement toward volunteerism, adroitly lobbied key political figures, built support among sometimes skeptical social welfare professionals, and forged an alliance with a powerful National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

But while CASA has pulled in $52.7 million over the last decade from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), it is not clear that children served by CASAs end up in long-term, caring homes more often than those who get no CASA help. In Cleveland, some judges question whether a CASA program there would significantly improve the representation of kids in court. And CASA officials admit that their volunteer force is too female (84 percent) and too white (82 percent).

Nevertheless, CASA’s national conference in Arlington, Va., in June — where House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) received a Children’s Champion Award (his wife is a CASA, and they’re foster parents), and where an ExxonMobil banner hung behind the dais — demonstrated that powerful financial and political forces believe in CASA.


They believe in people like Steve and Sue Forstadt, a husband-wife team in Los Angeles County, who have served as CASAs for seven years. The Forstadts represented one boy who’d lived in 13 homes before the age of six. They’ve seen cases of multiple personalities and satanic abuse. But they’ve also served in cases where the abuse allegations were less certain. Their job is a weighty one: Provide judges with information to help decide if a child should remain with the parents or guardians, be placed in foster care or be put up for adoption.

To prepare for that role, CASA volunteers undergo 30 to 40 hours of training in topics such as juvenile court procedures, court reports, interviewing techniques, chemical dependency, cultural diversity, child development and attachment, and placement options. Unlike a caseworker, who might juggle 60 or more cases at once, a CASA focuses on one or two cases at a time. The volunteer interviews the children, family members, social workers, teachers, health providers and others involved with the youth.
CASA programs exist in every state but Vermont. Although the organization is structured as a national network, each state organization operates autonomously.

If the role sounds something like that of guardian ad litem, that’s no coincidence: The cornerstone of CASA is the King County guardian ad litem program, started by Judge Soukup. In its first year, 1977, 110 guardians worked with 498 children. Around the country, judges, attorneys and federal officials watched the experiment. A similar initiative soon sprang up in Minneapolis, and in the following years in Tucson, Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sarasota, Hartford and Wichita. By 1980, most of the programs were using the umbrella term, Court Appointed Special Advocate. However, many programs still used the guardian ad litem designation.

(While CASAs and guardians often perform the same functions, CASAs are volunteers and do not have to be lawyers. Guardians, who are often paid, are usually attorneys.)

Early supporters included the National Association of Junior Leagues and the National Council of Jewish Women. The support that made CASA take off, however, came from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in Reno, Nev.

“We knew this was important,” recalls Presiding Judge John Steketee, of the Family Division of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Grand Rapids, Mich., who was involved in the early formation of CASA. “Judges wanted to give more attention to cases, and liked the idea of an organization of volunteers to help them with information-gathering in abuse and neglect cases. We were looking for ways to assist” CASA’s growth. One way was to host the first national CASA conference, in 1982, at the council headquarters in Reno.

Not everyone was thrilled. CASA initially encountered scattered resistance from social welfare agencies. “The people in social services would say, ‘Here we are with our master’s degrees and these amateurs are coming in,’” recounts Steketee. “As the months went on they became believers, once they got past thinking the CASA people were amateurs. It took a while. Part of it was encouragement from judges.”

Jurists like Judge Stephen Herrell, who introduced the CASA concept in Portland, Ore., worked to alleviate social workers’ concerns. “If social workers are doing their work right, CASA volunteers can be their best friends,” he says.

Catching the Wave

One reason for CASA’s growth is good timing. The 1970s saw increased political attention to child protection. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), passed in 1974, mandated that all abused and neglected children be provided a guardian ad litem in court. The act did not provide funds to monitor compliance or spell out who could be guardians.

Then President Ronald Regan took office in 1980 with a call for Americans to do more as volunteers. “Volunteerism swept the country in the 1980s,” recalls Peter W. Forsythe, former head of youth corrections in Michigan and a vice president (now retired) of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for almost 20 years.

“The Reagan people ... saw it [volunteerism] as a big thing,” Judge Stekette says. President George Bush made it just as big with his call for a thousand points of light.
The secret about volunteer efforts, however, is that they require money. By the mid-1980s, judges and child protection workers saw that CASA needed more from the government than encouragement. In 1987 Judge Tom McDonald, then a family court judge in Louisville, Ky., and active in the judges’ national council, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the work of CASA. Committee Chair Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was looking for innovative programs to combat child abuse, says McDonald, now a judge on the Circuit Court in Louisville, Ky. He says Biden’s interest in CASA was sparked by a Senate staffer who knew about it. A key supporter in the House was Rep. Ron Mazzoli (D-Ky.), who “was important in guiding us through appropriations,” McDonald says.

Judges around the country talked up CASA to their congressmen. The efforts gradually paid off: When Congress passed the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990, it authorized the expansion of CASA and stipulated that by 1995 a “court appointed special advocate shall be available to every victim of child abuse or neglect in the United States.”
CASA received an initial appropriation of $650,000 through the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). CASA’s federal funding grew to $10 million this year, and it is slated to increase to $12 million annually over the next five years through the Violence Against Women Act of 2000. Among CASA’s current Capitol Hill champions are Sens. John (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), each of whom received the President’s Award at the recent CASA convention. (Neither senator attended.)

Of the $10 million this year, $7.75 million went to grants to state and local programs, with the aim to expand existing programs and create new CASA programs, according to Carmela Welte, CASA’s deputy chief executive officer.

(The earmarks don’t put CASA in quite the same league as the youth field’s earmark champion, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which gets about $50 million annually. And it’s not quite on the same level as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is funded through its own Act of Congress, the Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children Protection Act of 1999. The act directs OJJDP to make annual $10 million grants to the center.)

CASA is also backed by grants from foundations, including the Edna McConnell Clark, David and Lucile Packard, Kappa Alpha Theta, Gannett and Gerber foundations. (Total grants have fluctuated, from $54,000 in 1995 to $917,000 in 1997 and $583,000 last year.) A current $1 million Packard grant goes for something new — an 18-month examination of CASA’s record in helping to move abused and neglected children toward permanent living arrangements. It is the first comprehensive look at CASA’s effectiveness — and, indirectly, that of the national organization as well.

Does it Work?

As OJJDP administrator from 1990-92, Robert Sweet tried to get the agency to use part of CASA’s earmark for an evaluation. Sweet, now a GOP staffer on the House Education and Workforce Committee, says he was unable to “persuade those in the bureaucracy to fund an evaluation. Once funds are earmarked, the process is set and the infrastructure is put in place. An objective evaluation would be valuable for the CASA program and tell us if the tax dollars that go for the program are well spent.”

So far only a few limited studies have looked at CASA, “with inconclusive, yet promising results,” according to Pat Litzelfelner, assistant professor of social work at the University of Kentucky. Several studies she reviewed showed that children with CASA volunteers were more likely to be adopted than were children without volunteers. Other research shows that “children and families served by CASAs have more services provided to them by child welfare agencies than do children without volunteers.”

But after studying 210 cases in Lawrence and Wichita, Kans., Litzelfelner concluded that the presence of a CASA did not make a difference in the permanent placement of a child. She emphasizes, however, that judges may assign CASAs to the more difficult cases, further complicating any evaluation of CASA’s effectiveness. Her study showed that children with CASAs had fewer placements while in care and fewer court continuances than did those without CASAs.

For the Packard-funded evaluation, Caliber Associates (a research and evaluation firm in Fairfax, Va.) is examining the characteristics and needs of children who receive CASA services compared to those who do not; the short-term outcomes associated with receiving CASA services; and the long-term outcomes associated with receiving CASA services. CASA volunteer training will also be examined.

“We feel the work of each CASA volunteer can make a difference in the child welfare picture, says Packard Program Officer Lucy Carter. There is anecdotal evidence of positive effect. The evaluation will show an objective finding.”

Men, Minorities Wanted

While CASA wins praise from Congress, state and local officials and judges, CASA officials say they need to make some adjustments.

They want to expand CASA in major urban areas where it already operates, and get a foothold in Cleveland. CASA hasn’t received a warm reception in Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) because no judge has taken a leadership role in welcoming the organization, according to Jackie McCubbin, executive director of Ohio CASA/GAL Association. She also says a pool of local attorneys who act as guardians ad litem aren’t eager to relinquish their duties (and fees) to CASA volunteers.

Administrative Judge Peter M. Sikora of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court says the judges feel that the current guardian ad litem program works well. The six-judge court prefers well-trained attorneys, considering the complexity of the cases. Sikora scoffs at the idea that attorneys won’t welcome CASAs because they want to keep the fees of $250 per case. He also says the county has more than 5,000 pending abused and neglected cases, which would require 1,000 volunteers. Nevertheless, the County Bar Association and the County GAL [guardian ad litem] Project are developing a pilot CASA program.

CASA is also trying to correct its gender and racial imbalance. While nearly half of abused and neglected children are male, only 16 percent of CASA volunteers are men. CASA officials believe more men and minorities would be better able to bond with some children, producing better long-term results.

They want more people like Dago Benavidez, of Salem, Ore. The Mexican-American CASA has been working on the case of a five-year-old girl whose father was deported to Mexico, whose mother might not be mentally competent to raise her, and whose grandmother wants to adopt her. “I can relate to the culture of this family,” Benavidez says. “Even though the grandmother is from Mexico and I’m from Texas, we speak the same language.”

Other CASA plans include creating greater specialization among volunteers. This means, for example, training CASAs to work exclusively with adolescents or special education children. And it would like to spread the word about CASA to the public, which would broaden its support. “We are not a household word, like Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Michael Piraino, executive director of the National CASA Association. A study by a Seattle market research firm two years ago said CASA should ask volunteers to talk more about their fulfilling experiences.

Yet it can be emotionally draining work. The Forstadts, the husband-wife team in Los Angeles, sometimes grow pessimistic about their power to help fight abuse and neglect. But they work hard to recharge their enthusiasm. Says Forstadt, “We want to do this as long as an 85-year-old volunteer we know who’s still going.”

Does this reliance on volunteers promise too much in citizen activity? Does it take government off the hook to provide services for defenseless children?

“I believe that our kind of heavy-duty volunteerism promises a lot but delivers a lot,” Piraino says. “This is different from most volunteer work. It’s intensive and professional. It’s not one day in and out the next.”

Hollie I. West can be reached at


Michael Piraino

Executive Director

National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association

100 W. Harrison

North Tower, Ste. 500

Seattle, WA 98119

(800) 628-3233

Carolyn McDonald

Volunteer Coordinator

CASA of Pittsburg County, Inc.

P.O. Box 1356

McAlester, OK 74502

(918) 426-5779


Pat Litzelfelner,

Assistant Professor

College of Social Work

629 Patterson Office Tower

University of Kentucky

Lexington, KY 40506

(859) 323-7407



Court Advocate Program Grows, But How Much Does It Help?: Many Ways to Run CASAs

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West, Hollie I. "Court Advocate Program Grows, But How Much Does It Help?" Youth Today, November 2000, p. 44.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.