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National CASA Programs Serving Tribal Courts

By Paige Beard, Director of Program Services, National CASA Association

Currently, there are 11 CASA programs in six states providing CASA volunteer advocacy in tribal courts. These eleven tribal CASA programs are located in Alaska, Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington. The tribal nations served include the Creek, Pawnee, Osage, Cherokee, Quechan, Santee Sioux, Kenaitze, Kalispel, Spokane, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and the Gila River Indian Community. While all of these programs train CASA volunteers to advocate in tribal court, six programs are referred to as dual court programs; serving in both tribal and state court. Whichever model is used, the CASA volunteers supported by these programs serve as a consistent voice for the child.

The National CASA Association began its Tribal Court CASA project in 1995 and through the years, have provided training and support specific to working with tribal courts, addressing the unique needs of Tribal CASA programs and the courts they serve. Some tribal courts are very similar in their appearance and procedures to state courts while others function in a more traditionally Native American manner.

With the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a child’s case may be transferred from a state court to a tribal court. With the dual CASA programs, the CASA volunteer follows the case between courts, providing uninterrupted advocacy to the child. Serving in both courts and understanding the procedures and practices of both, enables the CASA volunteer to serve as a liaison between court personnel. In the same way, programs serving only in tribal courts, are familiar with state court practices through their exposure to the National CASA Association Volunteer Pre-Service Training, and can ease the transition of a case to a tribal court. Frequently, when a transfer due to ICWA is determined, state court and social services personnel may be concerned that a transfer is somehow a lessening of services, or that the tribal system is not as qualified as the state system to protect the child. The CASA volunteer’s role serves as an information link between these two courts.

In addition to participating in the standard National CASA Assocaition Volunteer Pre-Service Training, Tribal CASA volunteers learn about customs specific to Native communities. Programs provide information covering tribal customs and traditions, tribal court procedure, tribal ICWA workers, and how to advocate for the best interests of Native children using federal and tribal law.

Programs, Locations, Directors

Dual State Court/Tribal Court Programs

  • Kenaitze Indian Tribal Court, Kenai Peninsula, Kenai, AK
    Joy Petrie, CASA Program Coordinator
  • Cherokee Country CASA, Tahlequah, OK
    Jo Prout, Executive Director
  • Okmulgee/Creek Nation, Okmulgee, OK
    Kim Deer, Executive Director 
  • Pawnee/Osage, Pawnee, OK
    Helen Norris, Project Director
  • East-Central CASA, Brookings, SD Santee Sioux Tribal
    Julie Wermers, Executive Director
  • Pend Oreille Valley, WA - Kalispel Tribe Reservation
    Cathleen Kintner-Christie, Director
  • Imperial County & Quechan Tribal CASA, El Centro, CA
    Alex Cardenas, Executive Director

Tribal Court Programs

  • Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde CASA Program, Grand Ronde OR 
    Angela Fasana, Tribal Court Administrator
  • Spokane Tribal CASA, Wellpinit, WA  
    Tawhnee Colvin
  • Yakama Nation, Toppenish, WA
    Jenece Howe, CASA Coordinator     
  • Gila River Indian Community CASA, Sacaton, AZ
    Karen Wolf, CASA Coordinator

Spot Light on Four Programs:

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde CASA Program, Grand Ronde OR
Angela Fasana, Tribal Court Administrator

The Tribal Nation of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon operates a CASA program as program of the Tribal Court. The Tribal Court Administrator began exploring the idea of a CASA program in 2007, after being approached by a local county CASA program.

The program was officially launched and the Tribe became a member of the National CASA Association organization in 2008. Our Tribal Program only serves children who are Wards of the Tribal Court, which is a relatively small number, totaling approximately 30 youth. We currently have one CASA volunteer that is serving two children, but we have had as many as five CASA volunteers serving nine youth.

The Tribe provides attorneys for parents and children involved in dependency proceedings in the Tribal Court, and therefore it was difficult for the Council to justify the need for CASA volunteers as well. However the turning point may have been the fact that many children were leaving Tribal care and did not want to have a relationship with the Tribe as adults.

This information was very disheartening to the Tribal Council, Court and Children and Family Services Program. These children were the children of the Tribe and they had such anger towards the Tribe. After some thought and discussions with Council, it became apparent that due to historical trauma, many of the children coming into care had not lived near the Tribe, or been brought up in cultural ways, and their only contact with the Tribe had been through the traumatic event of removal from their parents.

CASA volunteers in the Court are charged with preserving or establishing a cultural connection between the Tribe and the child in addition to their additional responsibilities as CASA volunteers. A CASA volunteer with the assistance of the Court Administrator developed a guide, “Supporting Native Children: A Guide for CASA/GAL Advocacy in State Courts.” The Guide is available on National CASA Association’s website. An Oregon version of the Guide is available from the Tribal Court.

“I believe very strongly in the CASA Program and believe the Program fits well with our cultural practices and beliefs.” - Angela Fasana, Court Administrator

Kenaitze Indian Tribal Court, Kenai Peninsula, Kenai, AK
Joy Petrie, CASA Program Coordinator

In 2005, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai, AK, established the first ever Tribal Court CASA Program in Alaska. Tribal Court Judges in abuse and neglect cases saw a need to have CASA volunteers in the courtroom because the voice of the child was missing. Judge Kimberley Sweet built the program from the ground up as part of the Kenaitze Tribal Court. As the Program took shape, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe employed a program coordinator to recruit, train, and oversee CASA volunteers. The purpose of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s CASA program is, “To empower and educate our people to speak for our children in the strength and understanding of our culture and traditions. We will accomplish this through recruitment, screening, cross-cultural training, and supervision of CASA volunteers serving as independent third party officers of the court, advocating for the best interest of abused and neglected children.”

After seeing the importance of having CASA volunteers in the lives of children and youth in Tribal Court, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe pursued a partnership with the State of Alaska’s Office of Public Advocacy (OPA), which houses the Alaska CASA program. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed in 2011, establishing the Kenai Peninsula CASA program, a partnership between the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the OPA – a direct partnership between a Tribal government and a state government – serving children in both Tribal Court and state court. Given the history of tension and mistrust between state government and Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes, this partnership is almost radical and unprecedented.

The MOA outlines the role of both OPA/Alaska CASA program and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. The MOA states that OPA/Alaska CASA program will provide support and training to volunteers and CASA program staff. Through collaborative efforts, all volunteers are dually trained in Tribal Court and State Court proceedings. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe employs a CASA program coordinator/court administrator who reports directly to the Chief Tribal Judge of the Kenaitze Tribal Court. Requests for CASA volunteers in Tribal Court proceedings come directly from judges through court orders. The CASA program coordinator receives the order, and matches the case with an available volunteer.

In state court proceedings, requests for a CASA volunteer come from Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) who work under OPA, and are the state assigned advocates in abuse and neglect cases. An added benefit to this partnership is that CASA volunteers are the only party in these cases who can follow children and youth between court systems, should cases transfer between state court and Tribal Court, further providing consistency for children. In 2014 Kenai Peninsula CASA served 37 children and youth (22 in State Court & 15 in Tribal Court) through the work of 13 CASA volunteers.

Quotes from Judges:

“With regards to CASA and what it provides: I rely on the "voice of the child" that the advocates present on my cases. Our Court is truly blessed by a CASA program that thoroughly trains community people to serve the best interest of our children for the Court. They are trained to respect, honor and care for the children and their family members, no matter what the hard issue is. Every CASA volunteer that has been appointed to my cases has been truly vested in the children they represent. Aside from what they do for the Judges on a case, what they do for children is immeasurable. I saw the special connection they have with their children at a Christmas party planned by the CASA staff and attended by the volunteers with their children. It was so heartwarming to see the smiles and hear the laughter of children going through traumatic times. The CASA volunteers provide valuable extra support that gives the children the greatest advantage to weather rough times. "Special" does not adequately describe this program, but they do a special work, especially well.”

- Judge Susan Wells, Kenaitze Tribal Court

“The CASA Program is an invaluable tool for our Tribal Court. The information they provide gives me great confidence that the decisions we reach are indeed, in the best interest of the children.”

- Judge Rusty Swan, Kenaitze Tribal Court

Cherokee Country CASA, Tahlequah, OK
Jo Prout, Executive Director

CASA of Cherokee Country, Inc., was established in 1995. The program is located in Tahlequah, OK, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, which includes 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma. A collaboration between employees of the Cherokee Nation and individuals from various non-profit agencies in the City of Tahlequah resulted in the development of CASA of Cherokee Country. The program is a “dual” program serving Cherokee Nation Tribal Court as well as two state courts, Cherokee County District Court and Adair County District Court.

In calendar year 2014, there were a total of 331 young victims of abuse and neglect in the three courts served by CASA of Cherokee Country. With 14 active volunteer child advocates in the program, 80 of those children received the caring attention and potent advocacy of an independent voice in court through a CASA child advocate. Native American children account for the highest percentage of abused/neglected children served in these three courts, with from 65 percent to 85 percent of children served each year being Native American (Native children are served in state courts as well as tribal court).

At a recent volunteer appreciation luncheon, both the Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation, S. Joe Crittenden, and the Honorable John Cripps, Tribal Juvenile Judge, praised the selfless efforts of CASA volunteers, recognizing how valuable their reports are in clarifying issues and moving cases toward permanency.

The greatest challenge facing this program has been the same challenge faced throughout its 20-year history: Recruitment and retention of volunteer child advocates.

Pawnee/Osage, Pawnee, OK
Helen Norris, Project Director

Our project began 17 years ago. Our first case was assigned to us in the Pawnee County Court. We later moved into the Pawnee Nation Tribal Court. This decision was made because when a case began in state court and transfered to tribal court that CASA volunteer could move with that child’s case. Also when a case moves from tribal court to state court that CASA volunteer can move with that case and still remain the most consistent person in that child’s life.

We then moved into adjacent Osage County Court at the request of the District Attorney. Osage County is the largest county in Oklahoma and includes the Osage Nation Reservation. We later moved into the Osage Nation Trial Court. We are the only CASA program in the nation that serves children in two state courts and two tribal courts.

All of the CASA volunteers are cross-trained in state and tribal court. They observe in both courts and are trained using the National CASA Assocition Curriculum. An additional 10 hours is added on with training in Pawnee and Osage history. All volunteers must attend one Pawnee or Osage tribal ceremony, not a pow-wow, but a tribal ceremony. They are then sworn-in by the Judges in both courts and become officers of the court in both courts.

Since we began we have trained 67 native and non-native advocates. They have served 340 children on 165 cases. Forty-three percent of the children served are Native American. We currently have 17 advocates serving 61 children on 32 cases in all four courts. Sixty-nine percent are Native American children, 29 percent are Caucasian and two percent are African American.

One of the quotes from a recent judge’s survey- “Tribal courts have more intertwined family relationship issues than non-Indian courts. The assistance of a CASA program is helpful in companion cases that involve families with different fathers and mothers and placements with extended families.”

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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