State & Local Programs

CASA: A Guide to Program Development

Section 1 - Planning a Quality Program (Chapters 1- 9)
Section II - Volunteers (Chapters 10- 12)
Section III - Managing the Program (Chapters - 13-15)

Manual HomeIntro Chapters1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Section I - Planning a Quality Program
Chapter 1: Initial Planning Steps

Become Educated About the Problems
Assess the Community?s Response to Child Abuse
Make the Case for CASA
Determine if the Program Will Succeed
Obtain Judicial Support
Enlist the Right People to Help
Form a Steering Committee
Plan the Committee?s First Meeting
Next Steps

Become Educated About the Problems

The first step in planning for a CASA program is to educate yourself about the problems of child abuse and neglect and your community's response. How well are the child welfare and judicial systems working in your community? Are the needs of abused and neglected children being adequately met? Do children who are the subject of court action have a voice to speak for their best interests? The answers to these questions are not simple and learning them will involve doing research and talking to a number of people, but the knowledge will enable you to become a powerful spokesperson to sell the CASA concept to community leaders and organizations.

It is very helpful as you begin the planning process to have close contact with your state CASA organization, local CASA programs, and with National CASA. State representatives may already be aware of someone else in your community who is interested in collaborating on the project, thus eliminating duplication of efforts and increasing effectiveness. Local programs will be more than willing to share their knowledge and experience and can often help you avoid making common mistakes or reinventing something that already exists. National CASA has various materials to assist you, from written manuals on a variety of program development topics to volunteer recruitment materials. They also have staff available who can answer most of your questions, whether general or specific. Take advantage of all the resources available to you ? your job will be easier and the results better.


Assess the Community?s Response to Child Abuse

Some of the information you will need about your community include answers to the following questions:

  • How many reports of abuse and neglect were made to child protective services last year?
  • Of the reports received, how many were substantiated?
  • How many new abuse and neglect cases were filed in court last year?
  • What cultural and ethnic groups are represented in the child welfare population in your community?
  • How does the percentage of minority children in foster care in your community compare to the percentage of the minority population as a whole?
  • What is the average length of time children remain in foster care placement before a permanent plan is achieved?
  • How many children were terminated from court involvement last year?
  • Of that number, how many were returned home?
  • How many were placed with relatives?
  • How many were placed for adoption?
  • How many children in your county are currently waiting for adoption?
  • Is every child involved in an abuse or neglect proceeding appointed a guardian ad litem? If not, which cases do receive appointment? How many children were represented by a guardian ad litem last year?
  • Who currently provides guardian ad litem services?
  • How does the presiding juvenile court judge rate the current system of representation?
  • Is the judge satisfied with the information being provided to assist his/her decision making?
  • What was the total cost of the current system of guardian ad litem services last year?
  • Does your state statute or court rules define the role of the guardian ad litem? If yes, what is it?
  • Does your state statute specify who can serve as the guardian ad litem? If yes, who can serve?
  • What is the average number of cases carried by a protective services social worker?
  • What is the average number of foster care placements for each child in foster care?

Some of this information will be a matter of public record and can be obtained at the library. However, much of the data can be obtained only by interviewing child welfare and court personnel. Making contact with these individuals can provide other intangible information such as advice on the local political climate, community mood, and history of children's services leading to the current system. Unfortunately, solid data on these issues is not available in every community. If you are in this situation, you may need to make educated estimates based on what you can learn and advocate for better data collection as a starting point for better services to children. One key to success is to be well informed about the CASA program before you conduct the interviews. This will avoid misconceptions and enhance future relationships. Some key individuals to interview:

  • Presiding judge of the juvenile or family court
  • Director of the department of social services and other staff members
  • Court administrator
  • Representative from state attorney general's or county prosecutor's office
  • State CASA office or state association president
  • Other local CASA program staff
  • Members of other child advocacy or civic/social organizations who are interested in child abuse issues (such as child abuse councils, Junior League, Urban League, National Council of Jewish Women, League of Women Voters, Kiwanis, etc.)
  • Service providers who treat children referred by the court and social service agencies
  • Members of the local bar association
  • Business leaders with knowledge of the community and experience in volunteer programs


Make the Case for CASA

Once you have conducted your interviews and gathered the desired data, you will need to interpret and summarize how well your community is responding to abused and neglected children. Some issues to consider are:

  • Does the juvenile judge feel that he/she has enough time and information to make appropriate decisions for children?
  • Do child protective services workers carry more than the recommended 20 cases at a time?
  • Does every child who is the subject of an abuse or neglect proceeding have a guardian ad litem appointed?
  • If there is a guardian ad litem appointed, does that individual conduct a thorough investigation, including meeting and interviewing the child, prior to going to court?
  • Does the average foster child in your community experience multiple foster home placements?
  • Does every child in the court's jurisdiction have the opportunity for a frequent, thorough review of his/her case?

If the answers to these questions or others raise concern for the children in your community, then a CASA program may be one solution. Having a CASA program will not eliminate abuse and neglect, and it will not prevent the need for foster care for some children. It will, however, help to ensure that the court has more of the necessary information to make the most appropriate decisions for the children involved. Additional information provided by CASA volunteers facilitates more expedient permanency planning for the children and reinforces compliance with the conditions set forth by the judge, both of which help improve the quality of life for children who have been abused and/or neglected.


Determine if the Program Will Succeed

Need alone does not guarantee the success of a CASA program. The next step is to assess the feasibility of establishing a program. A number of factors are involved in making this decision, including:

  • Is there judicial support for the program?
  • Will the other child advocacy organizations in the community support the development of a CASA program?
  • Will the bar association support the development of a CASA program?
  • Is there a history of successful volunteer programs in the community?
  • Is there potential for local funding?
  • What are the strengths of the community that will facilitate the development of CASA?
  • What are the barriers that will have to be overcome before CASA can be successful? What are the strategies for overcoming them?
  • Has a CASA program existed in the community previously or did efforts to start a program fail? If so, find out what happened. Such information will provide insight into the challenges you may face.

If you conclude that there is a community need for CASA and that a program of this type has a realistic chance for success, you are ready to move to the next crucial steps in developing the program. These steps would consist of getting the court?s support, involving people with the qualities and skills necessary to lead the program development effort, and obtaining the support and assistance of community leaders.


Obtain Judicial Support

No element of program development is more important than obtaining judicial support. If the judge does not support the program, it stands little chance of success. Most judges have heard about CASA and have at least some knowledge about how it works. However, some may have negative perceptions of the program based on an anecdote they have heard or a personal bad experience with a volunteer in some other setting. Whatever the reason, some initial reluctance on the judge's part is not unusual and should not discourage you. Sometimes, you can counter the judge?s objections by providing information and answers to specific questions and by letting the judge know that she will be very involved in establishing the practices and procedures the volunteers will follow. Creating the opportunity for your judge to talk to other judges who have experience with CASA programs may also help.

Other ways of overcoming resistance are suggesting that the program be tried on a pilot basis for a limited period of time, with a limited number of cases, or appointing volunteers to a specific type of case. If, after all of these strategies have been tried, the judge is still not supportive, you may have to conclude that the time is not right and put plans for the program on hold. It is likely that this will not be a permanent situation. There have been situations in which a judge has initiated the development of a CASA program after initially rejecting it. So, if this happens, don?t give up hope permanently. Within a few years, or only a few months, circumstances may change that will create the right opportunity for CASA to succeed.


Enlist the Right People to Help

Enlisting the right people to provide leadership for the program?s development is critical. They must be chosen carefully and sensitively. Because CASA will be a new program in the community, it will likely come under close scrutiny. The professionals who work with children and families will have many doubts and the public will have many questions. They will raise issues such as the prudence of involving volunteers in confidential child protection cases and about the qualifications of the staff and volunteers. Because at this point any mis-step can derail the program, it is imperative that you engage individuals with strong credibility, commitment to the mission of the program and a healthy perspective about what the program can accomplish.

Some of the qualities that have been found to be essential in the leaders of CASA programs include:

  • A commitment to working to improve the lives of children in need
  • Tolerance for people with diverse lifestyles and values
  • A belief that the best option for children is to be raised by their own families or in another permanent family if that is not possible
  • A willingness to learn and an openness to new ideas
  • A good reputation in the community
  • The respect of the court
  • Adequate time to commit to the planning and development of the program
  • Good organizational skills
  • Ability to lead and to motivate

The experience of National CASA, and many programs across the country, has confirmed that individuals who serve other roles in the child welfare system have many attributes necessary to a successful program, but they have limited ability to lead the development of CASA in their communities.

Employees of child protection and other social services agencies may find that their involvement with CASA may create a perceived conflict between their commitment to CASA and their standing as a good employee. Consider, for example, a situation in which an individual?s employer agency creates a policy that limits a CASA volunteer?s access to children, a condition that severely limits the volunteers ability to be an effective advocate. Commitment to CASA would require being in opposition to the employer?s policy, a conflict that would be difficult for anyone.

For these same reasons, foster parents, who in most communities are licensed by or contracted to the child protection agency, would have the same potential conflicts and blurring of roles as agency employees of the agency. Although their demonstrated commitment to children is laudable, it is best for all concerned if they are not involved as volunteers, staff, or board members of local CASA programs.

It is also wise to avoid engaging anyone who has current or past involvement with a case before the juvenile or family court. Court actions and decisions that impact our children or those to whom we have close connections are among the most emotional events a person can experience. Such events may affect our perspective of the court and our ability to be objective about similar issues for a lifetime. Although advocating for change in the system when one feels victimized is an understandable reaction, becoming involved in CASA is usually not the best action for someone in such a situation. The risk for negative consequences for the individual and lasting damage to the program is just too great.


Form a Steering Committee

Establishing a steering committee is the first institutional step in setting up the organization. Steering committee members serve as a group of people who have endorsed the concept of the program and are willing to lend their names and volunteer their time to moving the concept through the exploration and startup phases. The defined membership and purpose of the steering committee offers legitimacy, shows visible progress and marks the beginning of community support for the program.

The steering committee is understood to have an impermanent leadership role: usually less formal than a board of directors, but with a similar level of responsibility leading up to the creation of the program?s governing board of directors if it is determined that the program will be a nonprofit organization. Some members of the committee may be appropriate for membership on the regular board, but the time-limited nature of a steering committee makes it appealing to some individuals who would not have the time or interest in serving on the board.

The size of the committee is not set in stone. It should be large enough to assure that there are an adequate number of people to do the work and small enough to allow members to feel that they are part of a unified team effort. The number of members can vary from eight to twenty. The important thing is to make sure the group possesses the right attributes.

Determining who should serve on the committee will be influenced by many factors, including local politics. In order to attract early funding and to gain support in the community, this committee must include enough credible leaders whose names are recognizable and whose organizations are respected. Keep in mind also that while it may be easier to start the program if only friends and supporters of CASA are invited to join, it will not serve the program well once it is operating and working with other agencies. Acceptance of a new program is more likely if those who must work with it have been involved in its planning and design and are therefore invested in the program's success.

It is a good idea to consult with the chief judge about the composition of the committee. She may wish to actively participate or to designate someone from the court. Whether she chooses to participate personally or not, it will be important to keep her informed and involved throughout the planning process. The judge is also likely to have suggestions of others who should be invited to serve on the committee. In fact they may be willing to issue the letters inviting potential members to participate.

Some examples of people to be considered for membership on the steering committee because of positions they hold in the community include:

  • Judge(s)
  • Court administrator (or court clerk)
  • Representative of the local Bar Association
  • Representative of the Prosecuting Attorney/Attorney General?s office
  • Local director of the department of social services (or a representative)
  • Leaders of local nonprofit agencies who would work with the program
  • Member of the media/press
  • Member of the city council or county commission
  • Leaders of key civic groups (examples: Junior League, NCJW, women?s or men?s clubs, church organizations)
  • Representative of Kappa Alpha Theta (if there is an alumni or collegiate chapter in your community)

In addition to involving people in key positions, it is also crucial to have individuals who have knowledge of the legal and financial requirements for developing an organization, people who are experienced in fundraising, and someone who has knowledge of public relations and marketing. All of those invited to serve must be aware of the amount of time and energy it will take and be committed to staying with the committee until the program is off the ground. The actual amount of time from initial planning to the first volunteer training class varies from community to community, but a year is about the average.


Plan the Committee?s First Meeting

Regardless of the judge's role on the committee, her presence at the first meeting is important because it provides credibility and establishes the support of the court in the minds of those present. The agenda for this first meeting will set the tone for the program planning effort to follow.

If the participants have limited knowledge of the CASA concept, present an overview, allowing time for discussion. It is also effective to have materials on hand that can explain history, development and impact of CASA programs in other communities. These materials are available from the National CASA Association. A national overview can often help early planners understand CASA's purpose and affirm its credibility.

It is also very helpful to have a representative of your state CASA association or a director from another local program participate in the first meeting. They can provide valuable information about how CASA works throughout your state and will be invaluable in answering many of the questions that arise. Contacting someone as soon as you have a date for the meeting will help to assure that someone can be available.

Once the planning committee has been formed and has held their initial meeting, the real work begins. There are many questions to be answered, decisions to be made, and tasks to be accomplished. Program planning is like building a house. It requires many people and much hard work, but if the foundation is built according to a well-conceived plan and the walls are constructed by a team with the right skills, in the end, everything will fit together and the house will be solid. Following the same rules in building a CASA program will assure that the program runs smoothly and the children served receive the best possible advocacy.


Next Steps

Once the planning committee has a plan and schedule in place, they will then be ready to begin establishing the building blocks that will become the structure and foundation of the program. This next phase is likely to take a number of months. Members of the committee will sometimes be working alone or in groups of two or three to accomplish their assigned tasks. During this period, it is easy to lose sight of what is happening and even to lose focus. People are busy with their own responsibilities and it is easy to put off those "CASA duties" until a more convenient time. It is essential, therefore, that the designated leader of the committee be aware of what each member is charged to do and that she maintains frequent contact with the whole group. Meetings of the whole group may not be as frequent during this time, but occasional meetings are important to maintain the group?s enthusiasm and to provide accountability, especially for the procrastinators.

The following chapters discuss in some detail the activities that will be undertaken by committee members as they work toward program implementation.

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