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)

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Chapter 10: Recruiting the Right Volunteers

Where and How to Find Them
Getting Prepared
   - STEP ONE: Determine the Type of Volunteers Needed
   - STEP TWO: Determine How Many Volunteers You Need
   - STEP THREE: Create a Recruitment Plan.
   - STEP FOUR: Develop a Written Volunteer Job Description
   - STEP FIVE: Develop a Volunteer Application
   - STEP SIX: Screening Volunteers
   - The Initial Contact
   - The Application
   - Reference Checks
   - Central Registry and Criminal Records Checks
   - The Interview
   - Training as a Screening Tool
   - Spotting Red Flags
Saying "No"

Where and How to Find Them

Recruiting, screening and selecting volunteers is an ongoing process for any CASA program. Since community volunteers are the backbone of CASA, program directors and CASA staff spend a great deal of time focusing on how to get the most qualified volunteers into the program, and keep them once they are screened and trained. Many new CASA programs fill their first training class primarily through word-of-mouth news about the program. Beyond the first class, however, it will likely be necessary to engage in community-wide marketing to keep a constant flow of applicants coming in.

No matter how you decide to handle volunteer recruitment, remember that it is one of the most important -- and most visible -- jobs in the program. The person responsible for recruiting volunteers helps to mold the program's image, and is your front-line representative to prospective volunteers. The recruiter will determine the quality of the volunteers who join the program, and will be the person who screens for competency, responsibility and stability. As a "community ambassador" for the new program, the recruiter must be articulate, objective and approachable.


Getting Prepared

Volunteer recruitment is a marketing effort. You are trying to promote the program in a way that will:

  • Attract males and females of all ages who represent the ethnic and cultural groups in your community.
  • Attract them on an ongoing basis, to replace volunteers lost through natural attrition.
  • Generate visibility for the program in the community.

To be most effective, your recruiting effort needs to be thoroughly researched and a written plan developed. The plan should clearly outline your goals, what you intend to do to reach those goals, and when you can realistically expect to accomplish them. Funding sources may request to see a copy of your recruiting plan, and ask specifically if you target any minority populations.

The CASA program should produce a standardized packet of written information which clearly explains the purpose of CASA, defines the role and responsibilities of the CASA volunteer and explains the commitment of time required. Your recruitment plan should outline specific strategies to attract male and female volunteers from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and from a variety of age and socio-economic groups. It should be designed to also make the public aware of the problems faced by abused and neglected children who enter the courts.


STEP ONE: Determine the Type of Volunteers Needed

Since the CASA volunteers you recruit will be meeting the specific needs of your community, take a moment to think about the type of person you are looking for. What skills should he/she have gained in other employment or volunteer settings? What attitudes should the volunteer possess? What training? What interest do you want your volunteers to have in child welfare or child abuse/neglect?

Also keep in mind the demographics of the children you will be serving. Do they come from largely rural areas? Inner-city communities? Will your program be serving a large number of minority children? Children who do not speak English as a first language? Children with disabilities? Once you determine the needs of the children, then you can concentrate on recruiting volunteers who will be sensitive to the needs of those children and can communicate effectively with their families.

The CASA volunteer must also have certain qualities that are not tangible. He or she should be an emotionally mature and stable person, who has experienced satisfying relationships with children. He or she should be objective and receptive to individual lifestyle choices. The applicant should also possess a sense of self-worth, exhibit self-assurance, be able to deal with hostility and rejection, and be flexible enough to accommodate change.

Successful CASA volunteers commonly have some skills that enable them to perform their duties effectively and efficiently, and to apply the knowledge gained through the pre-service training and consultation with the program staff. These include the ability to:

  • Interview, observe, listen and analyze written material;
  • Write clearly and concisely; investigate and do research;
  • Express themselves verbally;
  • Plan and set goals;
  • Make decisions;
  • Organize tasks;
  • Pay attention to detail and accuracy;
  • Be assertive;
  • Be a credible witness;
  • Negotiate;
  • Follow guidelines and policy; and
  • Be tactful.

These skills may have been gained in other volunteer settings, through employment, or through life experience. A professional background is not required in order to possess these skills, and persons with no previous work or volunteer experience can be successful in the CASA program if they have acquired these skills in some other way.

Some CASA programs use graduate or law students as CASA volunteers. However, it is sometimes difficult to secure a firm time commitment when you must work around class schedules, vacations, and the fact that many students tend to move from the area when they graduate.

Avoid an elitist attitude when recruiting volunteers. Keep in mind that a degree does not assure a good volunteer. Over the years, CASA program directors have found that successful volunteers come from all walks of life -- business executives, teachers, factory workers, homemakers, nurses, senior citizens.

Many people who would like to give of their time and energy and who would make excellent CASA volunteers, cannot financially afford to do so. Volunteering can be expensive if you consider such expenses as gasoline, parking, long distance phone calls, and child care. Many CASA programs find that to recruit and retain good volunteers, they must budget for reimbursement of at least some expenses.


STEP TWO: Determine how many volunteers you need

This information will be largely based on your budget, program model and the expectations of the court. Although your goal is to always recruit as many potential volunteers as possible, keep in mind the realities of your training and supervision capabilities. CASA programs generally start out modestly, taking a few cases at a time until the program is operating smoothly. Your first training class shouldn't include more people than you can comfortably handle. The time lapse between recruitment, screening and training is crucial. The kind of volunteer needed for a CASA program is the type of person who is heavily in demand. Many programs have found that unless they use volunteers within a short time, they are picked up by other organizations. If you do have an overflow of qualified applicants, then select your core group and try to put the others to work in other jobs until they can be assigned to cases.

Keep in mind that you need to have an adequate staff to volunteer ratio to ensure timely and thorough case management. The ratio specified in the National CASA Program Standards is one supervisor to 30 volunteers.

The needs assessment conducted in the planning stages should indicate how many dependency cases come through the court. Your judge can help you determine the number of cases that are likely to be referred to the CASA program. It will also be necessary for the planning committee and/or the court to decide how many cases each volunteer should optimally handle. Ideally, each volunteer should be limited to one case at a time.


STEP THREE: Create a Recruitment Plan.

Your CASA program may be ready to go, but it won't get far if no one has heard of it. Because the program relies heavily on lay volunteers, odds are you will have to go outside child welfare circles to do your recruiting. At this point in the planning process, you need to outline how and where you will seek volunteers.

Determine what your product is. Your product is what the program accomplishes -- how CASA helps children -- and what benefits it provides to those who want to volunteer. Use this information to develop your message and informational materials such as brochures, posters and/or public service announcements. (See NCASAA's Communications Manual for CASA/GAL Programs)

Research has shown that the most frequent reason given by CASA volunteers regarding their motivation for being involved in the program is an overwhelming motivation to help children. The other highest responses suggest that volunteers want to meet the needs of the community; to effect positive change in the community; and to use and develop their knowledge and talents. Having this information will help you formulate an effective message that will attract potential volunteers with similar motivations. The CASA program offers volunteers some unique experiences including the following:

  • Active participation in the court and child welfare system that produces significant and positive results in the life of a child.
  • Experience that may apply toward career advancement.
  • Increased knowledge of child welfare issues and the court process.
  • Belonging to a group of individuals who are concerned with similar issues.
  • Being active and involved in the community.
  • Making professional contacts in the field of child welfare.
  • The opportunity to help improve life for a child.

Decide how you are going to get that message across to the public. There are many methods that can be successful in promoting the program in the community and you will probably want to utilize several in order to appeal to a broad range of audiences. Some of the most frequently used are:

  • General information brochure
  • Newspaper articles
  • Public service announcements (PSAs)
  • Posters
  • Speaking engagements
  • Direct mail
  • Newsletter
  • Press release
  • Special events
  • Display booth at fairs or malls
  • Celebrity endorsement
  • Audio visual materials (videos)
  • Program web site
  • Billboards

Determine what audiences you need to reach and place your message accordingly. Consider approaching the following:

  • Community service groups (Junior League, National Council of Jewish Women, Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, League of Women Voters, Kappa Alpha Theta chapters)
  • Minority service organizations (the Urban League, the NAACP, etc.)
  • Professional organizations (teacher's union, nursing association, American Bar Association, medical auxiliary, Sigma Delta Chi Journalism Society, business round tables)
  • Colleges and universities (school of social work, law school, criminal justice department)
  • Community colleges and technical schools
  • Churches, synagogues, mosques (bulletins, special project groups)
  • Employers and employees (company newsletters and print and electronic bulletin boards)
  • Television, newspapers and radio (through stories and public service announcements)
  • State bar associations

A good way to reach your preferred audience is to consider your marketing approach early in the planning stages of the program. For example, some CASA programs have invited leaders of other community service organizations (from which they might like to recruit) to serve on the planning committee. Others ask media leaders, public officials, and/or CEOs of local businesses and corporations to serve on the advisory council or board of directors. These representatives can be valuable salespeople for the program. Their community contacts and influence can not only help you recruit volunteers, they can be extremely valuable in fundraising and legislative efforts as well.

Although volunteer recruitment, like fundrasing, is an ongoing effort, it is generally helpful to schedule volunteer recruitment efforts in concentrated doses, three or four times a year. Response is generally low in the summer months and during holiday seasons, so those months could be used for planning and media promotion, not for general recruiting.

And remember, your recruiting and marketing efforts may not pay off immediately. Not every inquiry leads to a volunteer. Don't be discouraged. Keep in mind that a potential volunteer may need to hear the message several times before actually picking up the telephone and requesting an application.


STEP FOUR: Develop a Written Volunteer Job Description

The volunteer job description serves several purposes. First, it gives prospective volunteers a clear, concise idea of exactly what the program is and what it expects of them. Second, it gives the CASA program a chance to clearly outline the parameters of the job. This can help diffuse false expectations and/or inappropriate behavior before they have a chance to develop (see a Volunteer Job Description in the Tools section). Third, a written statement will add credibility to the program since it can also serve as "official" documentation to the court, the state, the media, or even potential funders on exactly what CASA volunteers do (see sample in the Tools section).

The job description should be provided to all CASA volunteers before they are accepted into the program. Once they are assigned to cases, the job description should be used as a basis for guiding their activities and evaluating their performance.


STEP FIVE: Develop a Volunteer Application

One way to find out whether or not the potential volunteer would be suitable for the program -- and has the necessary qualifications -- is through the volunteer application. Most CASA programs use this as the primary way to gather the basic information necessary for screening.

Most programs develop application forms that are similar to job applications. They cover the basics -- educational background, work experience, other volunteer or community service work, criminal record, and personal history. The application is also useful as a way to elicit other information about an applicant such as the applicant's motivations, expectations, and personal values regarding children, families and abuse/neglect. Questions on these issues can help you discover a person's past experience with children, and their previous involvement with other child-related organizations. Questions requiring written responses also give you an idea of the applicant?s writing ability.

Such questions might include:

  • "What motivates you to apply to volunteer with this program?"
  • "What do you think of when you hear the words 'child abuse'?"
  • "Why do you think parents would abuse their child?"
  • "What's your personal history or experience with child abuse?"


STEP SIX: Screening Volunteers

Not every applicant will be appropriate for a position as a CASA volunteer.

CASA volunteers carry a great responsibility because they work with children who have been abused or neglected. All of these children carry emotional scars from their ordeals. They need trust, respect, and the interest of a mature adult who can make objective, well-informed decisions about their future without becoming too personally involved. CASA volunteers do not serve the same purpose as a "Big Brother" or "Big Sister." If this is the type of role the applicant desires, then the CASA program is probably not the right choice.

The program should develop a written screening procedure that details the screening methods that will be employed. It is important to assure that every applicant is screened using the same procedures and that every staff member who conducts screening follows the procedure in every case. Remember that screening of applicants begins with the initial contact between the potential volunteer and the program and involves several steps. Many inappropriate volunteers will screen themselves out once they understand the role and the commitment required. The self-selection process is an important step in volunteer screening. Applicants should not feel like they have failed if they decide to drop out in the process. CASA is not for everyone, and programs may experience as much as a 50 percent attrition rate as applicants sort through the demands and responsibility of the position. Make it clear from the beginning: "It's OK to drop out if you decide you do not want the job." Think of other ways to channel the applicant's interest - perhaps on the newsletter or a fundraising event.


The Initial Contact

Your phone rings. The caller has heard something about your new program and might be interested in volunteering. At this point, there are several pieces of information you should give potential volunteers:

  • Go over the CASA job description, explaining exactly what a volunteer does and what the parameters of the job are.
  • Explain the time commitment, making it clear to the potential volunteer that they can expect to spend 80 or more hours investigating and preparing a case for court.
  • Make sure you convey a clear message about the appropriate volunteer/child relationship. The CASA role is very different from a job that encourages a personal relationship with the child -- a common impression held by many when they first hear of CASA. CASA volunteers do not become an intrinsic part of the child's life; they do not replace parents, and are not encouraged to take the child on outings, or to their homes.
  • Pass on information about the basic requirements, i.e. age, background, criminal records check. Also make it clear that final acceptance as a volunteer will not be made until after the applicant successfully completes training.
  • Offer to send the inquirer an application, a brochure, and a copy of the job description.
  • If the individual is not interested in a CASA volunteer position, consider discussing other volunteer possibilities within the program.
  • Record the inquirer's name, address, and telephone number. Even if nothing materializes out of the conversation, you know this person has an interest in your program. Their name could be added to your fundraising list for future solicitation or to your mailing list to receive your newsletter.


The Application

Once you have described the program to a potential volunteer, he or she should then complete the CASA application form (see sample in Tools section). The written application is a very important part of the volunteer screening process, and should be required of every applicant. Never waive this requirement; the information in the written application can prevent surprises or unexpected problems later on. If the applicant is unable to write in English, it is essential that you obtain the information contained in the application. The program will need to decide if the volunteer's other assets outweigh an inability to write a good report. The program could assign another volunteer, staff member, or translator to work with the volunteer on court reports. Your program could also explore a dictation system. Have the volunteer sign the application, pledging that the information is correct. Be sure to ask the applicant to list other names they may have used in the recent past. This is important for central registry and criminal record checks.

CASA programs handle completed applications in several different ways. The process largely depends upon the availability of staff and the program's philosophy. Many programs schedule an interview with the potential volunteer as soon as the completed application is returned, then do follow up on references and record checks. Others review the application and determine whether the person should be accepted into training based solely on the information contained in the application. They then use the training process to screen the applicant, with the interview being conducted after the training.


Reference checks

Some programs call references on the phone. Others ask the applicant to distribute a written reference questionnaire to be completed by three employment and/or personal references. Those who provide references should be assured that the information they provide will be held in confidence (see sample in the Tools section).


Central Registry and Criminal Records Checks

Central Registry is the state-run information database that contains the names of convicted child abusers. It is important to see if potential volunteers have a past history of substantiated child abuse/neglect allegations or a past criminal history. Volunteers should be made aware of the policy on these checks at the outset. Let applicants know that everyone is checked routinely; that it is not done on a selective basis. National CASA Association Standards require that a CASA program does not accept applicants if they have been convicted of, or have charges pending for a felony or misdemeanor involving a sex offense, child abuse or neglect, or related acts that would pose risks to children or to the CASA program's credibility.

Be sure to have the applicant fill out an information release form (see sample in Tools section). If your program operates as a part of the juvenile court system, you may be able to access both the Central Registry and police records on an inter-agency basis. If your program operates outside the juvenile court, you can either obtain record checks on an informal basis or through a formal written agreement. Be aware that, in some states, there is a charge for obtaining these reports. Check with your state organization or other programs to determine if your state is one of these. There is also a chance you may be denied access altogether. Contact your local law enforcement agency for information on local protocol on conducting these checks.

Your program will need to establish a policy stipulating what will be allowed for volunteers accepted into the program and what will not be allowed. For instance, you may learn from the Central Registry report that the volunteer applicant was reported for child abuse but the incident was not substantiated. Though unsubstantiated reports are supposed to be deleted from the registry, they nevertheless sometimes show up.

Records of criminal incidents that took place when the individual was a juvenile also may show up. Though juvenile records can be expunged once the individual becomes an adult, few are aware that this is not automatic, but must be requested in writing of the juvenile authorities. You will probably want to eliminate from consideration anyone convicted of any violent crime. Before you set a policy that excludes applicants with any felony conviction, you may want to consider the nature of the crime, how long ago it was, and what the person?s history has been since.


The Interview

The purpose of the volunteer screening interview is the same as a job interview: to choose a person who is appropriate for the position.

Although volunteer applicants may not have the kind or amount of experience which would be ideal, it is important to determine if they have the ability to learn about the work, the interest to pursue the position, the commitment to complete the required training, the maturity and ability to perform the duties of the position, and an attitude consistent with the philosophy of the program.

If you structure the interview carefully, you can help to ensure that the necessary information is gathered. Because different people will often have different impressions, consider using a team to conduct the interview (see sample in the Tools section). Other helpful suggestions for the interview include:

  • Make sure the applicant understands what CASA is and what the volunteer does and does not do. The applicant must understand the requirements of the job, so a review of the position description is often an effective way to begin the interview. If the applicant seems confused about specific requirements, they should be clarified immediately.
  • Have the applicant elaborate on previous experience. The applicant's philosophy will often emerge during this portion of the interview. By hearing about past experiences, you can often gain insight into the motivation and/or attitudes this individual holds. This does not mean you should automatically reject someone if he or she has been involved with a program whose philosophy is in conflict with CASA's, but it might indicate that this person needs further investigation to determine his or her ability to function successfully in the program.
  • Ask structured questions that will elicit information about personal values and motivation. These are similar to questions you may have asked on the volunteer application, but a personal interview will give the applicant a chance to speak in depth about his or her feelings. The purpose of this portion of the interview is to screen for any biases or strongly held values that may hinder objectivity. You are looking for red flags.


Training as a Screening Tool

Some volunteers who have made it this far in the program will begin the training and determine that this is not the volunteer position they feel suited to or really want. They will screen themselves out. The hours of personal contact in training also give the CASA supervisors the chance to observe applicants closely, both in a group and individual context and spot characteristics that might be inappropriate. Some applicants may need to be screened out. For these reasons, it is strongly recommended that a program not make a final commitment to accept a volunteer into the program until after the pre-service training is completed. Because training is such an important part of screening, it is important that staff be involved. If an outside trainer or trainers are used exclusively, their observations should be shared with the staff.


Spotting Red Flags

Sometimes applicants are drawn to a CASA program because they were victimized as children, and want to prevent another child from going through the same thing. This is an attitude that you need to consider very carefully in your screening process. Most programs have found that volunteers who cite their own personal history as an abused child as their main reason for volunteering are unable to perform the duties of a CASA volunteer effectively. They are unable to remain objective for the child they represent. If a volunteer has an unresolved personal history of abuse, he or she sometimes experiences trauma and confusion as they attempt to serve the child. Their own need to understand their past history can be a stumbling block.

Some applicants with troubled childhoods will be comfortable describing their own experience, and have resolved the issues surrounding their own dilemmas through counseling, therapy, and/or self-help groups. These men and women can be empathic advocates for children, but only if they have dealt successfully with their own past.

Conflict of interest is also a consideration in screening for CASA volunteers. Some CASA programs allow foster parents to become volunteers while others do not. If you decide to accept foster parents as volunteers, they should never be assigned to children who are in their care. The assignment of board members of your CASA program as CASA volunteers represents another area for possible conflict of interest. For example, if a board member is unable to perform adequately as a CASA volunteer, the program director may find it difficult to tell the board member that they will be unable to continue serving in their capacity as a CASA volunteer. Another problematic situation arises when board members who also serve as CASA volunteers must make policy decisions regarding issues related to CASA staff and volunteers (see sample in the Tools section).

Ultimately, it will be up to the director or volunteer coordinator to use professional judgment to decide if an applicant would be an appropriate volunteer. If you are in doubt, it is best to favor the child. Although it may be hard to turn down a person whose intentions seem good, it is better than taking an unnecessary risk.

The CASA program may also attract applicants with a personal motive, such as searching for a child to adopt or to "save." This is also an inappropriate motivation that could lead to problems in the relationship between the child and the volunteer.

Sometimes applicants are motivated out of hostility or anger at the court over a decision that had an adverse effect in their lives. Others may meet all written criteria, but are unable to grasp the CASA concept or the intricacies of the court and child welfare system. You may encounter applicants who believe the rights and interests of the parents are primary, and are not suited to the position because their interest is contrary to the philosophy of the program.


Saying "No"

One of the most important abilities the program director or volunteer coordinator must have is the ability to say "no." As hard as it may be, turning down an applicant is much better than risking harm to the children the CASA program is designed to serve. You must also consider your liability risks, and the reputation of your program in the community.

Although your planning committee has created very specific criteria for accepting volunteers, sometimes the determination may depend on your "gut feeling." An applicant might meet all written qualifications, and give appropriate answers in the interview. But if you do not feel right about accepting the person, it's best to go with your instincts.

When an applicant is evaluated as not being suitable for the program, it does not necessarily mean he or she cannot be involved in CASA. Many potential volunteers may find they are more suited for clerical or administrative functions in the office. Someone who is not an appropriate volunteer might be an excellent fundraiser. An applicant who may not be right for advocacy in court might be able to edit your newsletter. Think of alternatives for applicants who do not meet the program's volunteer criteria; support can come in many forms.

Don't fail to let the applicant know the results of his or her evaluation. If the person is turned down, notify the applicant by letter or phone. Although the applicant deserves the courtesy of follow-up, be careful when you explain the reasons he or she was turned down. You may not want to release any information regarding why the individual was not accepted, especially when the decision is based on confidential information provided by references. It is a good idea to inform the program?s attorney and to seek legal advice about how to proceed.

It is also a good idea to avoid accepting volunteers into the program as a courtesy. As uncomfortable as it may be to "reject" someone, accepting the person -- and then just letting him/her sit by awaiting assignments that will never come is rude. Give your applicants the respect of dealing with their situations in an above board and direct manner. To do otherwise may result in a negative impact on the program?s image in the community.

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