CASA: Speaking Up for Youth – An Interview with Ann Wrixon, Executive Director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Contra Costa County
In Contra Costa County there are approximately 1,000 abused or neglected youth that come under the court’s care because they are no longer able to safely live at home. Can you imagine being taken away from your parents, your friends and life as you know it, not because of anything you did, but because they cannot, or will not take care of you or protect you? Then dozens of strangers enter your life: police, foster parents, social workers, judges, lawyers and more. This is a common scenario that abused and neglected children and youth face when they enter foster care. During this difficult confusing time Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASA”) can step in to speak for the child or youth’s best interest. It has been my privilege to serve on the CASA Board of Directors since 2012. I recently interviewed the Executive Director of CASA – Ann Wrixon – to provide additional information for CCCBA members interested in learning more about this wonderful organization.
What is Court Appointed Special Advocates Program?
CASA of Contra Costa County provides volunteer advocacy services to children who are dependents of the Juvenile Court as foster children. CASA volunteers are appointed by the Juvenile Court and work one-on-one with these children, fostering a unique atmosphere of trust and mutual respect leading to a meaningful relationship. CASA volunteers visit the foster home, meet with teachers, mental health providers, attorneys and social workers so they can provide a complete and detailed report to the Juvenile Court about a child’s situation and make recommendations for improvement.
Additionally, CASA volunteers provide fun activities and support to the child. They take them to the movies, for a walk, or to a museum or baseball game. They talk to the children about what is important to them, and what would make their lives easier. The CASA volunteer is often the only adult in the child’s life who is not paid to care for them, and for many children, this is the most valuable part of having a CASA volunteer working on their behalf.
Research shows that if children have even one consistent, caring adult in their lives, it can provide the support they need to complete their education and learn to trust and build healthy adult relationships. A CASA volunteer provides this stability and also has the trust of the court so that they can provide meaningful input about appropriate educational, mental health and housing for the child or youth.
Does the program work? Does it help foster youth in Contra Costa County?
Research shows that children in foster care with CASA advocates have much better outcomes. They are able to find a safe, permanent home, spend less time in foster care, are less likely to be bounced from home to home. They are 50 percent less likely to reenter the child welfare system. In addition, they do better in school including being 20 percent more likely to pass all their courses, and 25 percent less likely to have poor conduct in school and less likely to be expelled. Finally, they score better on nine protective factors, including controls on deviant behavior, having a positive attitude about the future, valuing achievement, and having the ability to work with others and the ability to work out conflicts.
In the last fiscal year, CASA’s transitional-age youth (ages 16-21) had exceptionally good outcomes:
- Only 48 percent of foster youth overall earn a high school degree or GED. However, 96 percent of CASA’s transitional-age youth were in school or earned a high school degree or GED.
- Only about 10 percent of foster youth overall go to college or other post-secondary education. However, 67 percent of CASA’s youth who earned a high school degree or GED were enrolled in college or post-secondary education.
- Living Skills: 65 percent of CASA’s transitional-age youth were enrolled in the county’s Independent Living Skills Program.
- Overall, 33 percent of foster youth end up homeless, but 100 percent of our transitional age youth were housed.
- Additionally 33 percent of foster youth end up incarcerated, but less than 1 percent of CASA youth are in the criminal justice system.
- Education: 65 percent of CASA youth have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Only 6 percent of Contra Costa foster youth overall have an IEP. This may be why almost all CASA youth graduate from high school or earn a GED.
- Health Care: 91 percent of CASA youth saw a doctor in the last year, and 83 percent visited a dentist. Overall, only 51 percent of foster youth overall in Contra Costa County saw a doctor and only 33 percent went to the dentist.
- Finally, foster children and youth in Contra Costa County referred to CASA have been moved 4.57 times before they have a CASA volunteer assigned. After a CASA volunteer is assigned to their case the average number of moves declines to 2.1.
Is CASA a mentoring program?
Although CASA volunteers are more than mentors, there is also a strong mentoring element to the CASA program. CASA volunteers are highly trained and provided with ongoing support as they work with traumatized youth who have suffered abuse and neglect, and according to the research this is the best practice for a mentoring program.
What does it take to become a CASA volunteer?
Each CASA volunteer must complete 45 hours of initial training. In addition, they are required to obtain 12 hours of continuing education each year. They meet at least monthly with a team leader who is an experienced CASA, and twice a year they meet with CASA staff and a review board of child welfare professionals to discuss their case in detail before they prepare their court reports. CASA volunteers spend an average of 15 hours a month working with their foster child. Last year our volunteers donated 30,513 hours in advocacy services valued at $803,710 according to CASA’s June 30, 2017 audit.
Anyone is welcome to come to a free information session. We have both online and in-person sessions.
You can sign up on our web site at https://www.cccocasa.org.
Ann Wrixon has thirty years of experience in non-profit management as an Executive Director. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has written extensively on issues related to the non-profit sector, child welfare and adoption.